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RFID: A Closer View

Sally Bacchetta
2005-10-17

Within the last few years RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) has steadily migrated from the inner circles of science and technology into the public consciousness. RFID is now well-integrated into the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the car you drive... even what’s in your medicine cabinet.

What is it? RFID refers to a network of microchip transponders, readers and system software that enables the mainstream exchange of more — and more specific — data than ever before.

Each RFID transponder, commonly called a tag, is embedded with an integrated circuit (IC) and an antenna. The IC is encrypted with a unique electronic product code (EPC) that is the equivalent of an electronic pedigree, differentiating the tagged item from any other in the world. When a tag passes within range of an RFID reader, proprietary information is transmitted through the antenna to the reader, which in turn feeds the data to a central computer for processing.

RFID technology was originally developed for the military during World War II, and since then it has expanded into the retail, medical, education, automotive, defense, fast food and travel industries. RFID has been described as “wireless bar coding”, but in fact, even basic RFID far surpasses bar coding capabilities.

A bar code-based tracking system is limited to gross classification and is labor intensive; items must be manually scanned one at a time. RFID systems are self-powered and require no human intervention. They can simultaneously scan multiple items and provide fingerprint-specific information about each.

For example, a bar code simply identifies an item as a can of vegetable soup. An RFID tag differentiates that specific can from every other can of vegetable soup and retains a complete history of its movement from point of manufacture to point of purchase.

The Difference is in the Details

To fully appreciate the potential of RFID, we need to more closely examine the specifics of the technology. RFID systems are most commonly differentiated by:

  • Storage and retrieval capabilities – read only or read/write
  • Power source – passive or active
  • Frequency – LF (low frequency), HF (high-frequency) or UHF (ultra-high frequency)

Storage and retrieval

Read only tags are limited to retrieval of stored data, such as product lot number or an item description. Read only systems can effectively streamline basic production and supply chain operations. They have been extensively tested in the retail environment, specifically for inventory management and anti-theft monitoring.

Read/write tags are designed with both read and write capabilities, which means that each time a reader retrieves an EPC from a tag, that retrieval becomes part of the EPC’s dynamic history. This constant imprinting provides real-time tracking of a tagged item at any point in its lifespan.

Current applications of read/write systems include EZ-Pass toll collection, airport luggage transfer, package delivery, wildlife management, child safety and hospital security.

Power Source

In a passive system the RFID reader generates an energy field that activates and powers the tag. A passive system is less powerful and somewhat less dependable than an active system; however, it costs less to operate and offers adequate functionality for many mainstream applications.

An active system features batteries embedded in the tags to power the transfer of data between tag and reader. Active systems are more sophisticated than passive systems, offering longer read ranges and additional features such as temperature sensing and longer operating life. Predictably, they are also more costly to operate.

Frequency

Radio waves behave differently at different frequencies, and LF, HF and UHF tags each offer unique benefits and limitations. LF tags are the slowest, at 125 KHz. Although they have a limited read range— twelve inches or less— LF tags are better able to penetrate some substances than higher-frequency tags. They use the least power and are the least expensive tags to use.

HF tags operate at 13.56 MHz. They can be read from as far as three feet and are less sensitive to environmental noise than LF tags. HF tag data transfer rates are slowed by metal and water. Tag prices range from $.20 to $.30 U.S.

UHF tags are the newest generation of RFID tags. They operate at 850-900 MHz and offer extended read ranges of up to 20 feet. UHF tags cost as little as $.10 per tag, but they require the most power to operate. Like HF tags, UHF data transfer is degraded by metal and water.

Once again, form follows function. RFID systems can be designed with any configuration of storage/retrieval capacity, power source and frequency, depending on the end-user’s performance requirements.

RFID in the Community

Wal-Mart was one of the first retail giants to recognize the potential benefits of RFID. Their early financial and empirical support has been fundamental to the evolution of RFID in the retail sector. In 1999 Wal-Mart partnered with the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to refine the technology for commercial applications.

Laboratory and field-level pilot tests were successful, and in 2003 Wal-Mart issued a mandate requiring its top 100 suppliers to become RFID compliant by January 2005. Although they have since revised their compliance timeline, Wal-Mart continues to champion RFID as the next generation system of supply chain and inventory management.

The list of commercial interests who have followed suit and adopted RFID track and trace technology includes: Benetton, Coca Cola, CVS, Federal Express, Gap, The Gillette Company, Home Depot, Kohl’s, Marks and Spencer (UK), McDonald’s, Metro (Germany), Mobil, Phillip Morris, Procter & Gamble, Target and Tesco (UK).

The retail sector is not the only one to recognize the potential benefits of RFID. In October 2003 the U.S. Department of Defense announced their RFID Policy, requiring suppliers to implement passive pallet-level or item-level tagging systems by January 2005.

Although RFID is fully operational in some sectors of the DOD, not all of its suppliers were able to meet the original compliance deadline. According to Alan Estevez, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Supply Chain Integration, the DOD implementation timeline has been revised to 2007.

In February 2004 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Counterfeit Drug Task Force released its report “Combating Counterfeit Drugs”. In the report FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan recommended full-scale implementation of RFID technology by 2006. Updates on the FDA initiative can be found at www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2005/205_rfid.html.

RFID is also on deck with the Department of Homeland Security. The U.S. State Department recently published an Electronic Passports proposal, and according to Jim Harper of Privacilla.org, "The State Department intends to start issuing RFID-chipped passports, with unencrypted personal information on the chips, later this year."

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is moving forward with its plans to incorporate RFID into the monitoring of aircraft traffic and safety.

Looking Ahead Worldwide spending on RFID is expected to top $3 billion by 2008, almost triple the market of 2003. The widespread adoption of RFID in diverse industries has made one thing abundantly clear. Frequency standards must be established to facilitate the full potential of RFID implementation.

EPCGlobal, an international consortium of RFID technology manufacturers and suppliers, has established EPC protocols which they intend to submit to ISO for acceptance as international standards.

Supporters embrace RFID’s positive impact on the business bottom line, including reduced labor costs, increased supply chain accountability and improved product availability to the customer. Some privacy advocates and consumer groups have raised concerns about potential abuses of RFID and erosion of personal security.

Like the Internet, RFID enables significant advances to our business and personal lives. And like the Internet, it can be misdirected with negative consequences. As with any technology, it is incumbent upon each one of us to become educated and remain involved in the implementation of RFID in our communities.

Sally Bacchetta - Freelance Writer/Sales Trainer

Sally Bacchetta is an award-winning sales trainer and freelance writer. She has published articles on a variety of topics, including RFID, selling skills, motivation, and pharmaceutical topics.

Visit her RFID blog for an exploration of the ethical and social considerations of RFID. Or read her feature article Informed Consent: Ethical Considerations of RFID.



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