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RFID RTLS

RFID – What You Need To Know

RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, is a technology we’re sure you’ve heard of by now. After all, it’s ability to track item location and data provide endless benefits:

  • Increased supply chain efficiency
  • Reduced human errors in inventory
  • Eliminated cost of replacing lost or stolen items
  • Elevated security
  • And more….

It has numerous applications:

Companies and organizations have increasingly adopted this technology for the above benefits, and have additionally realized the advantage it provides in reacting to unforeseen events such as COVID-19. Subsequently, using RFID or another tracking technology is essential to remaining competitive in today’s market.

But where do you start?

We’ve been in the industry a long time and provide a basic overview of RFID below so that you can begin your journey towards efficiency, lower operation costs, security and more. To see how RFID compares to other tracking technologies, see this article.

Radio Frequency Types

RFID functions on radio wave frequencies, which are measured within frequency bands: low frequency, high frequency, ultra-high frequency (such as RAIN RFID) and super-high frequency.  These terms refer to the wavelengths of the frequency – low frequency has longer wavelengths, which increase and shorten as the frequency gets higher.

Frequencies determine the strength and distance of the signal. Low frequency usually has a weaker signal and a shorter read distance but is less affected by disruptors to radio frequencies (such as liquid or metals). This is important for environments that may require RFID tags to interact with these substances. Higher frequencies promise a stronger signal and one that reads at a farther distance but is more sensitive to disruption from various materials1.

This table compares frequency bands and the technology used in each one:

Chart comparing different real-time locating system technology.

Predominant RFID

Within the world of RFID material handling there are two predominate technologies used; HF and UHF.  UHF is the most predominate of the two due to its long-read ranges.  HF is used when short read ranges are desirable (such as use cases requiring isolation) or when the laws of physics prohibit the use of UHF (such as tracking of items that contain large quantities of water).

For this article, we will focus on the UHF frequency band.

RFID System Components

RFID systems are always comprised of two primary components: a transponder (tag/label) that goes on the item being tracked and the interrogator (reader). These components work together to store data about an item’s location, transmit that data and ultimately distill that data into usable information via a software application. Software apps, such as ItemAware, allow users to look up an item, see its location, and add additional data about the item (such as maintenance information, item history and much more).

 

Components of RFID System

RFID Tags: Passive, Semi-Active, Active

RFID tags are placed on every item that is going to be tracked. Different types and sizes of RFID tags determine versatility for different environments, infrastructures, and cost thresholds. A main distinction between tags is the method by which power is supplied to them – determining if they are passive or active.

First, let’s break down the types of RFID tags and how they work:

Passive RFID Tags are the simplest RFID tag, only containing an integrated circuit and an antenna. They do not transmit signals to readers, but rather engage when a reader sends a signal to the antenna. This is done through backscatter technology – without signals from the reader, the tag remains inactive. If the tag is located outside the reader’s range, the tag won’t have sufficient energy to send information to the reader. Because the tag does not contain a battery, they last indefinitely.

Semi-Active RFID Tags (also called semi-passive or battery-assisted passive (BAP) tags) communicate the same way that passive tags do – by receiving a signal from the reader. However, the semi-active tag circuitry is powered by a battery. The battery enables a longer read range than passive tags, but not as long as an active tag.

Active RFID Tags have their own energy supply, e.g. a battery or a solar cell, which is used to provide power to the chip and generate the RF signal for transmitting data to the reader.  Given that the strong electromagnetic field needed to power a passive tag is not necessary, the distance from the tag to reader can be significantly increased, yielding an increased coverage area for each reader. The battery typically lasts around 2-5 years before being replaced. Active tags can offer a longer read range – up to 1000ft / 304m – and are often used on items that need to be tracked over long distances.

Tags can be used on multiple items throughout their existence.

Tag Cost

The price of RFID tags considers the durability, frequency, volume of tags needed, etc. This means that there is not a straightforward price to share for each tag; however, passive tags are less costly than semi-active and active tags, and prices generally fall in these ranges (NOTE: prices do change based on the market, inflation, demand, etc.):

  • Active: Active RFID tags start around $25 / tag upwards of $100 tag.
  • Semi-Active: usually cost around $10-$25 per tag.
  • Passive: Passive RFID tags cost anywhere from $0.07 to $0.50 each

It is often assumed that passive RFID is the cheapest option on the market – and, when looking at tag price alone, this is true – but there are many factors that go into a final cost. Which means that what makes up your cheapest option depends on your requirements and the factors we continue to explore in the rest of this article.

Tag Sizes and Types

RFID tags come in a wide range of sizes. Active tags are generally larger because they have more components, while passive RFID tags can be as small as a grain of rice.2 Our engineers are continually engineering solutions that allow tags to affix to items properly so that they do not obstruct function and avoid being destroyed when an item is used. A recent example includes inserting a tag into a divot on a chainsaw for tool tracking, so that the chainsaw is tracked without risking damage to the tag during use. Another example is tamper-evident tags that are placed on weapons boxes. If the box is tampered with, the tag alerts users (like a security officer), increasing security and minimizing theft.

Since use cases are broad and tag options are numerous, it is best to talk to a professional to determine which tag is right for your situation.

Chart comparing RFID Tags

RFID Readers

Readers are essential for the RFID system as they send signals to tags and collect tag data. They fall into two main categories: fixed and mobile.

Fixed readers allow users to track items as they pass through chokepoints (such as entryways, stairwells, etc.). When an item passes through a chokepoint, the data is collected by the reader and communicates to the user that the item has moved from one location to the next. Fixed readers are the most expensive category of readers, but they also have the highest read range. A subset of fixed readers is an integrated reader which is often used in visible areas of indoor locations, because of its sleeker design.3

Mobile readers come in a variety of forms from a Mobile Computing Device that has an onboard computer, to a Sled that can fit on a person’s mobile phone and transfer data through Bluetooth or auxiliary connection. Users walk through inventory and scan to read the tags in that location with handheld readers. These readers are usually more cost-effective than fixed readers and are especially effective when searching for a specific item in an exact location.3 Once again, the right reader is determined by use case.

Examples:

 

An Integrated Fixed Reader: the Impinj Speedway xPortal R640 Reader used at the US Patent and Trademark Office

 

Zebra MC3300 RFID Series Mobile Computer

RFID Antennas

Antennas are another essential component of an RFID system, as they create the communication between the reader and the tag. Antennas are placed on both the reader (to send the signal to the tags) and on the tags that receive the signal (in turn transmitting the information that the chip is storing).

The signal strength between a tag and reader can be determined by the antennas, their size, polarity, and the degree of wave expansion as it leaves the antenna.4

Times-7 A5020 RAIN RFID Antennas offer the high performance and range needed for high traffic tracking with precision. 

 

SummaryThere are numerous reasons that go into choosing a technology that’s right for your needs: how a technology interacts with its environment, the current infrastructure, costs associated, if you need constant monitoring of an item, the value of the items you’re tracking and much more. While research can give you an idea of what might be best for you, it’s important to speak with a professional to make sure you are getting the best possible solution, with the highest return on investment. That’s why we are a full-service asset tracking and inventory management company. We built our own software (to create the best features on the market) and we specialize in the integration of hardware and software so that you can go from “start” to “tracking” with one company. We also source all hardware for you with our hardware partners that we’ve vetted to be the best. Contact us today!

 

Additional Sources

  1. https://www.impinj.com/products/technology/how-can-rfid-systems-be-categorized
  2. https://www.rfidjournal.com/question/what-is-the-smallest-passive-rfid-tag
  3. 1 (awareinnovations.com)
  4. https://www.analogictips.com/rfid-tag-and-reader-antennas/

Authors

 Bart Ivy, PMP

Bart is our Director of Automated Identification Data Collection (AIDC) and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Solutions. A retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant and certified Project Management Professional, he handles your solution design. From defining technical requirements to deploying and sustaining your system, he ensures high-quality services that satisfy your needs. Bart is an expert in the industry and works with these technologies every single day. He’s our go-to guy for information on deploying real-time locating systems.

 Elyse Cheatwood

Elyse is our Marketing Manager. With ten years in marketing and ever-increasing knowledge of the Automated Identification Data Collection (AIDC) industry, she creates research-driven content based on market trends, industry updates and tech insights from reputable sources (including the professionals she works alongside).

 

 

 

Categories
RTLS Traceability

COVID-19 and Real-Time Locating Systems

Times of crisis highlight the value of RTLS in supply chain management. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for digital transformation, namely the use of Real-Time Locating Systems (RTLS). Read below to find out more. 

The Critical Role of RTLS in Supply Chain During COVID-19

COVID-19: an unpredictable crisis that revealed just how fragile our way of life truly is.  Closed restaurants, remote work, children going to school in their living rooms; none of us foresaw the ways our lives would look in 2020.

Industries and supply chains were no different.

Looking back, we see the devastation COVID-19 wreaked on global supply chains, different channels required to meet customer needs, and the critical role that real-time locating systems have in helping industries react to crisis.

COVID-19 and the Supply Chain Crisis

As the pandemic spread across the US, supply chains battled inventory discrepancies, unreliable staffing, and supply shortages.

Rapidly changing purchase behaviors rendered inventory predictions inaccurate. Stock imbalances and uncertain demand confronted industries as consumers reevaluated buying habits and changed their purchase methods1.

New requirements enforced social distancing in workspaces and two-week quarantines for any infected staff members. This created additional challenges to companies as production lines shut down and gaps in staffing created delays and lost information2. Companies were also forced to reduce numbers and make staff cuts. By July of 2020, 31.3 million people in the US reported they were unable to work at some point in the last four weeks. This included full lay-offs or fewer hours worked as employers lost business because of COVID-19. This figure was down compared to the 40.4 million in June 2020 and 49.8 million in May 2020, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Supply shortages made national news, especially highlighted in the medical industry. The US government and hospitals scrambled to find and order N-95 masks, respirators, and personal protective equipment (PPE). Finding, making, and delivering these items was critical in providing immediate care, putting the medical supply chain to the test.

Changing Consumer Channels in 2020

Concerned about the dangers of the virus, more consumers shifted towards online purchasing, contactless payment, and delivery.

In March of 2020, when shutdowns happened, online purchasing spiked. Consumers made 58% of purchases online versus 32% prior to the pandemic. Many plan to continue this behavior after the virus is gone.3

Contactless payment and delivery also saw surges during this time. Companies such as DoorDash, GrubHub and Uber Eats were all poised to become heroes in 2020 as many consumers opted for contactless meal delivery. Second Measure, a technology company that researches consumer behavior, reported that 35% of US consumers used these services, up from the 27% that reported doing so a year ago. (Report published in December 2020.)

The digital trend affected grocery stores as well. Daily average online grocery sales in the US increased 110% March 12-April 11, 2020. This is compared to the week prior to the shutdown (March 1-11, 2020).4 Curbside delivery became a focal point for many of these stores, and Kroger even waived the $5 fee to appeal to shoppers.5

The Need for Real-Time Locating Systems (RTLS) During COVID-19

These abrupt shifts wrought by COVID accelerate the need for digital transformation, namely the use of Real-Time Locating Systems or ‘RTLS’.

Real-time locating systems accurately determine a person’s or item’s location, feeding that data to its users. These systems can use a wide range of technologies, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, RFID, Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) and Cellular. Each technology has differing sets of capabilities, giving users various options to fit their needs.

Use cases for RTLS systems are broad. Warehouses use these systems to track items moving in and out, the government uses it to track IT assets, and retailers use it to identify which stock is on the sale floor vs. in the back rooms. Hospitals use it to track both medical supplies and patients, and to perform contact tracing and proximity monitoring of personnel.

How can RTLS Help in Times of Crisis?

Times of crisis highlight the value of RTLS in supply chain management. Below are several reasons why RTLS is so critical:

  • Visibility: RTLS allows users to see how much inventory they have and where it is in the supply chain in real or near-real time, without physical inventories. When COVID became an issue, companies with poor visibility were not able to react quickly. Real-time locating systems allow companies to see what inventory they have on hand and where it is. They can more quickly decide what to produce and how much stock can be moved as demand shifts (i.e., from in-store to online fulfillment).
    • David Krebs of VDC Research, did a deep dive into the impact of COVID on industries. Reviewing his findings in an interview with AIM, he remarked “One of the things that has been exposed as a result of COVID-19… is that retailers with good visibility into their operations, particularly into their physical retail stores, are ones that have been best positioned to respond and be more agile in their response to different shopping habits. …Those who don’t have a good idea of what they have in their stores, or where it is, are going to be hard pressed to do this very efficiently. And that’s going to lead to a lot of dissatisfaction in regards to the customer experience.”
  • Transparency: RTLS centralizes inventory and location data, making it accessible to all with permissions. This allows anyone in the supply chain to pull and look at data that is relevant to them, increasing ease of communication and transparency among all stages of the process.
  • Automation Efficiencies: automating the tracking process guards against disruptions like gaps in staffing or poor performance of physical inventories. As mandates and shutdowns affected staffing during the COVID-19 crisis, some retailers were left unsure of inventory levels for each SKU.6 Using RTLS prevents this issue by tracking and maintaining inventory digitally. This enables on-line order fulfillment and significantly reduces processing time for orders delivered to consumers and retail stores.
  • Contamination Prevention: hospitals have found numerous uses for RTLS, including tracking equipment and patients. With designated areas for clean vs used items, hospitals can avoid cross-contamination and ensure a safer process for patients and staff.

Lululemon Has Success Using RTLS During the COVID Pandemic

Those who had RTLS at the start of the COVID crisis quickly realized its advantages. Lululemon, a technical athletic clothes maker, noted the benefits of using RFID (one form of RTLS) during the pandemic.

Lululemon’s CEO Calvin McDonald stated their success in a March 2020 earnings call: “With the use of RFID we can access product at any point across our network, not just DCs but at our stores as well from ship from store. So, it allows us to just regulate demand that we are seeing today online.”

Conclusion – Why RTLS is Important in Supply Chain 

We will be experiencing the effects of COVID-19 for years to come. Supply chains will continue to be scrutinized as demand swings and changing policies affect the way business is run.

The conclusion is that those who are continually pushing the bounds of technological innovation are better positioned to react to times of crisis. RTLS is a key technology that proved that point in 2020 and will continue to drive success for those adopting it going forward.

Index

  1. https://www.sdcexec.com/software-technology/press-release/21130666/sml-rfid-sml-rfid-finds-inventory-accuracy-is-a-top-priority-for-retailers-before-reopening-their-doors
  2. https://www.sdcexec.com/software-technology/press-release/21130666/sml-rfid-sml-rfid-finds-inventory-accuracy-is-a-top-priority-for-retailers-before-reopening-their-doors
  3. https://lasership.com/whitepaper_2020.php
  4. https://www.digitalcommerce360.com/2020/04/29/online-sales-jump-49-bopis-grows-208-amid-coronavirus-pandemic/
  5. https://vue.ai/blog/ai-in-retail/grocery-retail-digital-curbside-pickup/
  6. https://www.sdcexec.com/software-technology/press-release/21130666/sml-rfid-sml-rfid-finds-inventory-accuracy-is-a-top-priority-for-retailers-before-reopening-their-doors

About the Author

Elyse Cheatwood is our Marketing Manager. With ten years in marketing and ever-increasing knowledge of the Automated Identification Data Collection (AIDC) industry, she creates research-driven content based on market trends, industry updates and tech insights from reputable sources (including the professionals she works alongside).

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