Every time you hit the store for holiday shopping or drive on a toll road, radio-frequency identification (RFID) improves your experience. Behind the scenes, the use of RFID is crucial in modern warehouses and throughout the supply chain. Featuring a system of tags with encoded data, this groundbreaking technology makes today’s supply chain safer, more efficient, and more cost-effective.
To truly appreciate how influential the technology is these days, it helps to understand how far it has come. Keep reading to find fascinating insights into all things RFID — past, present, and future.
Who Invented RFID?
While many innovators contributed to the development of RFID, historians typically grant the most credit to Charles Walton. He earns this distinction, in part, because he was the first person to hold a patent for the technology. In fact, he managed to obtain patents for nearly one dozen devices related to RFID.
The very first patent Walton secured that actually included the acronym RFID was the portable radio frequency emitting identifier, which was awarded several decades after the basic concept of RFID began to emerge.
The History of RFID Technology: Development Timeline
While Walton’s patent represented a huge leap forward for radio frequency technology, many smaller steps were required earlier on to make this major development possible. Since then, a great deal of additional progress has taken place. We detail both the past and future of RFID in this timeline:
World War II and its immediate aftermath produced many technological leaps, including, most notably, the basis for modern RFID. Just a few decades prior, radar had taken a huge step forward as Dr. A. Hoyt Taylor of the U. S. Naval Research Laboratory experimented with high-frequency radio waves at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.
After that, radar’s development progressed rapidly, in part because it was regarded as essential for achieving the security of an aircraft early warning system.
Soon after, the convergence of radar and broadcast technology formed the precursor to RFID, as seen in the 1948 paper “Communication by Means of Reflected Power.” Authored by the forward-thinking Harry Stockman, this seminal work highlighted the possibility of point-to-point communication in which radio waves could be called upon.
Exploration of RFID-adjacent technologies continued during the 1950s. These updates were important, even if Harry Stockman’s concept would not come to fruition until far later. For example: the long-range transponder systems known as identification, friend or foe (IFF). This take on radar quickly became essential for the military, as well as in various aerospace initiatives. Some experts regard this as the original RFID application.
With the 60s came the creation of several companies devoted to RFID technology. Sensormatic and Checkpoint, for example, were founded during this influential decade. In an effort to limit theft, these companies developed tracking solutions we take for granted today — electronic article surveillance (EAS). Featuring tags attached to merchandise, this system can sound the alarm if unpaid merchandise is removed from the store or taken into the restroom.
The 1970s delivered an explosion of academic progress on RFID, which was studied extensively at this point by several notable universities, government laboratories, and other organizations, such as Sweden’s Microwave Institute Foundation.
Around this time, RCA (the Radio Corporation of America) began to expand its reach. The company had previously attempted to enter the mainframe computer race in the 1960s in an effort to compete with IBM. It exited this particular market in the early 1970s but continued to hold high standards with satellite communications. In 1975, the company — alongside Fairchild — published “Electronic ID System.” RCA’s contributions also included F. Sterzer’s work on electronic license plates for motor vehicles.
Several noteworthy patents were obtained during the 70s. Inventor Mario W. Cardulla, for example, expressed interest in rewritable active RFID tags. As mentioned previously, this was also an important time for Charles Walton, who sought a passive RFID tag.
After years of being thought of as a niche technology, RFID began to enter the mainstream during the 1980s. At this time, several commercial entities started taking advantage of RFID solutions. These were used in several sectors and situations, such as:
- Personnel access
- Factory automation
- Animal tagging
Perhaps most notably, it began to take over toll roads in the 1980s. This served as the culmination of earlier research and experimentation, conducted, in part, by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Eventually, this hard work paid off with an effective application for buses using the Lincoln Tunnel.
The Dallas North Turnpike was also an early adopter of RFID, utilizing Amtech systems that had been created by Sandia Labs primarily for the purposes of tracking livestock.
By the early and mid 90s, RFID was widely used for electronically collecting tolls. This approach quickly became more efficient and effective. In Oklahoma, for example, vehicles were soon able to pass collection points while traveling at highway speeds.
In the Northeast, several agencies joined forces to create the E-Z Pass Interagency Group (IAG), which became a top model for obtaining multiple tolls for a single vehicle-based billing account.
Transportation was by no means the only area in which RFID technology was taking off during the 90s. This application paved the path for RFID-enabled access to campuses, parking lots, and gated communities.
Ongoing research in the 90s was instrumental in enabling later breakthroughs. Perhaps most notably, researchers at IBM developed ultra-high frequency RFID capabilities, allowing for vastly improved read ranges and data transfer. IBM’s patents were later sold to bar code company Intermec. For some time, UHF RFID was simply too expensive to be practical for most applications.
Change was afoot, however, especially as the Uniform Code Council (along with familiar names such as Gillette) helped to establish the Auto-ID Center. Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this initiative focused on low-cost RFID tags, which researchers hoped could be placed on a variety of products and tracked through the entirety of the supply chain.
The vision of the MIT Auto-ID Center has been achieved, thereby dramatically changing logistics and supply chain management. It should come as no surprise, then, that a variety of companies have expressed enthusiasm for the Auto-ID Center’s work.
In the early 2000s, the Electronic Product Code (EPC) numbering system was developed and commercialized, thereby enabling universal identifiers for a vast array of products and other physical objects. These are typically encoded on RFID tags and used for tracking inventory, assets, and personnel.
The Future of RFID
Clearly, RFID technology has come a long way over the last few decades. This is only the beginning, however. The integration of smart-sensing RFID systems could expand the use of the Internet of Things (IoT) within warehouses, thereby enabling more accurate insight into temperature and more. From there, cloud-based systems will produce real-time data to boost stock accuracy and replenishment.
As RFID becomes more integral, it’s increasingly important to find a tailored solution for optimizing the supply chain. This can be accomplished with help from Peak Technologies. Our team of experts can build custom solutions that meet the unique needs of your enterprise. Contact us today to get started.