We live in a data-driven world. Data fuels businesses the world over, and its significance and value is growing. Firms must capture and refine a vast mine of information to ensure better decision making. After all, good data means good business. In part one of this two-part series, we answer the big RFID questions.
In the world of manufacturing, data is drawn from a multitude of sources. But the stream of information that is proving increasingly critical for firms to understand is the flow of materials and products – right down to an individual item level.
Which is precisely where Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) comes in.
Let’s get one thing straight – RFID is not new. In fact, it has been available for more than 50 years. But as enterprises look for better ways to improve visibility and efficiency across the value chain – from the manufacturing floor, through distribution, to the retail store – RFID presents an increasingly attractive option for product identification.
What exactly is RFID?
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) falls into the category of automatic identification technologies. Put simply, it is a system that transmits the identity (in the form of a unique serial number) of an item or person, wirelessly by using radio waves.
Now for the technical bit. There are different types of RFID systems, but typically RFID technology has two components: the reader and the tag. The tag is the part that’s held inside the product or packaging. It contains a microchip that stores the information about the item or shipment, such as the manufacturing date, destination, use-by date, etc..
The reader retrieves data from the tag, which has two parts — a transceiver and an antenna. To activate the tag, the transceiver generates a weak radio signal (that may have a range of a few metres) and transmits it through the antenna, which in turn can receive signals back from the tag. The reader then passes the information in digital form to the computer system to be collected and analysed.
GS1 manages the global standards for RFID – known as RFID/EPC global standards. As with its barcode standards, GS1’s aim is to ensure globally unique identification numbers are being used for RFID, so users can effectively track and trace products, services and other items through the supply chain.
What are the benefits of RFID over barcodes?
Every identification system is about collecting data, so the difference between RFID tags and barcodes (which both carry information about products) essentially comes down to the speed, accuracy and ease with which they enable you to do this.
So what is it that RFID provides that a barcode doesn’t?
1. No need for line of sight: because the RFID scanners use radio frequency waves to access the tag, this eliminates the need for line-of-sight access. Unlike a barcode, the RFID device does not need to be positioned perfectly in front of the scanner to be read, and this has huge implications on speed.
2. Scan at a distance: RFID tags can be read at much greater distances than barcodes. An RFID reader can potentially pull information from a tag a couple of hundreds metres away. The range to read a barcode is much less.
3. Speed of scanning: the above factors all contribute to a much faster scanning speed. In fact, RFID-based inventory management and tracking systems can scan items 25 times faster than those that use barcodes.
4. Complete automation: some barcode systems require a person to manually scan a label or tag to capture the data. RFID, on the other hand, is designed to enable readers to capture data on tags and transmit it to a computer system — without needing a person to be involved.
5. Durability and reusability: an RFID tag can be as small as a grain of black pepper and can be embedded right into a product’s packaging or the product itself. However, since line of sight is required for barcodes, the printed barcode must be on the outside of the product, where it is subject to greater wear and tear.
6. Read/write capability: you can’t add to the information encoded on a printed barcode. By contrast, RFID tags can be read/write devices — in other words, the RFID reader can communicate with the tag, and alter as much of the information as the tag design and capacity will allow.
What are RFID’s drawbacks?
With all these benefits, you’ll be wondering why RFID is not the mainstream for product ID. But when it comes down to it, there are some rather large barriers to implementation — the biggest being cost.
1. Cost barrier: until recently, developing, deploying and maintaining the software, systems and business processes for allocating and distributing serial numbers have generally been complex and costly. It has only been recently that the cost of manufacturing RFID devices has fallen to point where they can be used as a “throw-away” device. However, for many it has not fallen low enough.
2. Technical collisions: another common problem with RFID is reader collision, which occurs when the signals from two or more readers overlap. The tag cannot respond to simultaneous queries. Similarly, tag collision can be an issue. This occurs when too many tags are present in a small area. Both problems are overcome with the careful set-up of systems by experts.
3. Interference: when devices such as forklifts and walkie-talkies are in the vicinity of distribution centres, the possible interference can make it difficult to get a precise reading. Mobile phone towers have also been found to interfere with RFID waves.
4. Trouble scanning in liquids and metals: RFID readers have difficulty reading the information when RFID tags are installed in liquids and metal products. The liquid and metal surfaces tend to reflect the radio waves, which makes the tags unreadable. Instead, the tags need to be placed in various alignments and angles for taking proper reading.
5. Security: an RFID tag cannot tell the difference between one reader and another, which means the contents of an RFID tag can be read after the item leaves the supply chain and without consumers’ knowledge.
6. Difficult to remove: some RFID tags are difficult for consumers to remove, especially if they are embedded within a product where consumers cannot see them.
The good news is at Matthews our experience in RFID for product identification can help you overcome some of these challenges. We have access to a comprehensive portfolio of tags and readers for a broad range of markets and applications.
In Part 2, we’ll cover just where RFID is opening a world of opportunities and the future as we see it.
If you want to discuss RFID in more detail and find out how it will work for your company, call us on 1300 CODING (1300 263 464) or email us.