RFID was once a curiosity, but now, it’s almost ubiquitous in logistics and supply chain management. The technology has evolved significantly since its early days, and now, is more versatile and cost-effective than anyone could have previously imagined.
Not only are RFID systems crucial for modern supply chain and warehousing functions, they are widely used in retail, transportation, health care, and even hospitality. Across these and other industries, enterprises that fail to adopt this remarkable technology risk falling behind.
Despite the takeover of this technology, some business leaders remain reluctant to move forward. The main roadblock? A simple lack of understanding regarding how RFID works and why it’s imperative for remaining at the forefront of a competitive market.
At Peak Technologies, we understand that adopting a new system can feel overwhe
lming at times. We also believe, however, that, upon learning the basics, it’s impossible to deny the benefits of implementing this approach. To clear up any confusion, we’ve provided the answers to several common RFID questions:
What is RFID?
RFID is an acronym for radio frequency identification. This term references the radio waves that are used to locate and identify objects in an RFID system. Under this approach, it’s possible to gather and track a wealth of information — and relay it efficiently.
How does this technology work?
RFID uses electromagnetic fields to transmit data, which can be gathered via radio waves. This information is used to track a variety of items in real-time.
What are the main components of RFID?
Modern systems consist of two main elements: readers and tags. Readers are responsible for gathering information, while tags contain microchips that store and process extensive data. The chips within RFID tags also modulate radio frequency signals, which are transmitted and received by antennae.
A third feature also deserves attention: the IT architecture underscoring the RFID system. After the reader has obtained information from tags, middleware integrates this data into key applications for functions such as enterprise resource planning (ERP).
How do RFID readers work?
As a network-connected device, each reader has an antenna used to convert electromagnetic currents into waves. Featuring specific frequencies, these waves are continuously sent until the tags detect the reader’s signals.
The information from the tags is then transmitted and processed by the reader. The data is translated so that it’s understandable for the system’s middleware.
What are the different frequencies used?
Today’s RFID systems use the following frequencies:
- Low frequency (LF). Typically spanning between 125 and 134 kHz, LF has a limited range. This approach is ideal around metallic surfaces but is also commonly used for animal tracking.
- High frequency (HF). Offering an extended range and impressive flexibility, HF operates at 13.56 MHz.
- Ultra-high frequency (UHF). Running at either 433 or 860-960 MHz, UHF RFID provides an extensive read range and can transmit data faster than its LF or HF counterparts.
- Super high frequency (SHF). Also known as microwave frequency, SHF operates at 2.45 or 5.8 GHz. Read ranges span hundreds of feet, but these tags tend to be more expensive.
How does it differ from barcoding technology?
Barcodes and RFID systems are both used to store and process data. With barcodes — unlike RFID — line of sight is essential. Scanners detect reflected lights from barcode labels. These produce analog signals, which are sent to decoders. The decoders interpret signals and convert them to text. The initial scanning process cannot take place unless scanners can be positioned to effectively use beams of light.
Are there different types of tags?
Two main types of RFID tags are available: active and passive. Active tags include built-in batteries, so they can continuously transmit data. These tags can store far more data and often also feature an impressive read range.
Passive RFID tags do not contain batteries, but rather, rely on electromagnetic waves. The lack of battery can reduce costs, but may also limit read range and storage capacity.
What are the main benefits of RFID technology?
This technology provides a variety of benefits above and beyond barcodes. Advantages in a particular industry will depend on the preferred uses. Key opportunities include:
- Reducing costs by limiting labor-intensive tracking procedures.
- Increasing asset and inventory visibility via real-time tracking to prevent losses.
- Tracking metrics such as temperature to ensure product safety.
- Improving picking accuracy to limit errors in eCommerce.
- Boosting flexibility, so it’s easier to adapt to seasonal changes or other sudden shifts in data flow.
How do you begin implementing an RFID solution?
Implementation begins with a thorough overview of current data tracking and analysis methods. This should take concerns such as facility layout and IT infrastructure into account.
Once these details are understood, tag approaches — active versus passive — can be selected, as can frequency. This selection process will also take reader preferences — fixed versus mobile — into account.
Your RFID consultant can provide guidance every step of the way, ensuring that all components are properly integrated into the overarching inventory system.
Where in the supply chain do you introduce tagging?
While those new to RFID assume it’s most useful in the warehouse environment, it can actually be integrated into almost every area of the supply chain.
In manufacturing, for example, RFID labels can be used to track materials or individual components. Readers also scan tags upon leaving ports or arriving at distribution centers.
In retail, tags can be applied to individual items, storage containers, or pallets. Within all these contexts, it can be used for tracking valuable assets or personnel.
What are the main tagging levels?
Typically, RFID tagging occurs at either the item level or pallet level. Under an item-level approach, tags are applied to specific products. Pallet or case-level tagging involves a single tag for each pallet, rather than individually tracking each item the pallet load contains.
What information should be captured using the tags and how can it be used?
The tags can store and capture many types of data. This largely depends on the industry and location in which they’re used. Examples include:
- Vehicle registration for tolling purposes
- Control access for personnel or customers
- Tracking inventory or stock levels in both warehouses and retail settings
- Time and date for equipment check-in and check-out
- Temperature data, accompanied by alerts if unsafe conditions are detected
Where do you place the readers?
RFID readers can either be fixed or mobile. Fixed readers can be mounted to walls, ceilings, or doorways. Mobile readers can be attached to forklifts but are often operated as handheld devices.
Does RFID work well with metal or liquid?
One of the most common myths surrounding this technology: that tags and readers do not work well with certain types of materials. Yes, metal and liquid present some challenges. With strategic solutions, however, these issues can easily be overcome.
Metal is a common point of concern. While it can potentially detune the antennae contained in RFID chips, this problem can be mitigated with special transponders. Known as RFID on metal (ROM) tags, these are optimized to limit the ill effects of metal. As mentioned previously, low frequencies are preferred in metallic environments.
Advanced solutions now also allow tracking systems to work with liquids. These were previously problematic in that they absorbed radio frequencies. Special designs such as flag RFID tags can mitigate such issues.
Embrace the Future of This Technology
Interested in implementing RFID technology? Now is a great time to get started. All signs point to a bright future for these advanced solutions, which are increasingly versatile and cost-effective. RFID systems must be implemented strategically, however — and that’s where we can help.
Peak Technologies can play a crucial role in planning and setting up your system. We’ll help you develop a solution that is aligned to your enterprise’s unique goals and challenges. Contact us today to get started.