New opportunities in the burgeoning Radio Frequency Identification market are leading potential users to consider the technology for their operations, while looking for answers to the questions of standards and privacy concerns.And some "myth-busting" would help the RFID industry, too.
Over the past several years, industry standards have been developed that define the data entered on RFID tags, and there are technical and interface standards to define the compatibility among products from different manufacturers of RFID devices. These standards include a defined protocol between the four frequency bands of RFID: low-frequency, high-frequency, ultra-high frequency, and the microwave frequency band.
"What the industry needs now are application notes, guidelines, and best business practices to show potential users the value of RFID and what it has to offer," said Dan Mullen, president of AIM Global, the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility.
Even more important is the need to dispel the myth that an RFID system must be exclusive of any other system, including one already in place. Bar coding can be used side-by-side with RFID, and all these systems can be used together to get the best results.
"A manufacturer can use bar coding, mobile computing, wireless communication devices, and RFID in a plant environment," explained Mullen. "If a manufacturer is currently using a bar code system, they do not have to rip-out that system and replace it with RFID technology, unless that is the best decision for cost benefits and efficiency."
In reality, bar coding is inexpensive — it's just ink on a paper label — but the scanning technology for RFID is also coming down in price, noted Mullen. The big difference is the environment in which these technologies are used.
"Bar coding does not hold up well in harsh environments," Mullen said. "The paper labels are fragile and can easily become torn or marred, affecting their readability. The wireless nature of RFID makes it more conducive to the harsh manufacturing environment."
Bar coding can be difficult to implement in such environments since it often requires manual reading and can be labor-intensive. An RFID tag does not have to be lined up exactly with a reader/scanner to access information, making it easier to implement on a conveyor line or even a dock door.
Information access is another crucial difference between bar coding and RFID that could make the latter more beneficial for a manufacturer. A bar code on a label is dependent on access to a database to retrieve the information.
In contrast, RFID is like a portable database; the information travels with the tag, throughout the production process, from plant floor to shipping and onto the customer, if that is what the application requires.
Adding even more to the value proposition of RFID is the reusability of the tags. "RFID has Read/Write capability," Mullen explained. "The tag can be erased and used over and over again. Even though paper labels are cheaper, a manufacturer can recover the cost of installing an RFID system, due to the reusability of the tags."
Even tags embedded in a tote or container can be erased and reused for another application or sent back to the beginning of the production line, with new information added.
Although, privacy and security issues have been plaguing the RFID industry, "even bar coding had privacy issues when it was first developed in the 70s," commented Mullen.
"The main point that RFID users have to understand is that each RFID tag has a unique identification number, and no one can access the information on the tag unless they have access to the database, and this access can be restricted and the information can be encrypted," Mullen said.
There already is in place legislation that governs privacy concerns for data collection and computer use, and these also apply to RFID technology. "Basically, what we will need, going into the future, is more legislation that will cover all types of data entry systems, whether it's bar coding, keystrokes on a computer, RFID or other yet-to-be-developed devices," Mullen said.
For a manufacturer, RFID security must be considered at the systems level. Don't put more information on the RFID tag than is needed for a particular application."The user controls the information added to an RFID tag," Mullen said, "and that information cannot be changed or accessed unless authorization is given."
At AIM Global's recent "RFID Executive Summit and Legislative Fly-In," among the topics discussed was the convergence of RFID with WiFi (wireless networking) and sensors. This allows RFID technology to deliver information about the movement of a container — whether a container was opened, where it was delivered, and the final destination of the container.
"Combining RFID readers with wireless access points allows a user to control and track the contents of packages and containers," Mullen explained, "to make sure that the right products get to the right place anywhere in the world."
In the manufacturing sector, RFID is being used for not only manufacturing production, but also in the maintenance function. Mullen cites the example of Boeing, who is putting RFID tags on parts used in the manufacture of planes. The tags travel with the plane and are used to record and track maintenance details as the plane is serviced or repaired.
As to whether a manufacturer should contemplate using or switching to RFID technology, it all comes down to education, according to Mullen.
"A manufacturer should take time to learn what RFID is all about and understand their own business practices," said Mullen, "If they have a desire to improve their business and gain visibility into their manufacturing functions, then RFID might the right solution."