- Ivana Vanjak
RFID is a proven technology with a long and interesting history. It has always been ahead of its time until recent years. Mostly due to high price, it wasn’t applicable for commercial use. As the price decreases, new opportunities for its utilization arrive. To talk about the future of RFID we should first understand its beginnings. Many people are not aware how old and mature this technology really is.
History of RFID
Like many of the world’s greatest inventions, RFID was invented for the purpose of a war. Its history begins in the Second World War with the Allies and the Axis, both having a goal to find the best strategy to beat the opponents and finally, win in the war.
Their armies had used radar to trace planes before RFID was invented. However, radar was not precise enough. It was impossible to tell the difference between enemy’s planes and country’s own planes. Clearly, it was crucial to determine which plane is approaching in order to have enough time to implement a defense plan.
Germans discovered that the problem could be solved if a pilot rotated his plane when approaching to the base. As a result, a radio signal reflected back would be changed. That would be a specific alert that a friendly plane was approaching. These ventures were the first examples of passive RFID systems.
This invention was a major breakthrough. Nevertheless, it had numerous drawbacks. German pilots had to lose a lot of time and energy to perform this action. Hence, the British army went one step further and put a transmitter on each British plane. Every transmitter could detect radar signals from the ground. When signals were detected, transmitter would send out a signal back. The broadcast signal was a confirmation that the plane does not belong to their enemies.
RFID technology has been developed and improved significantly since then. However the principle is still the same. Every tag has a transmitter that reacts to signals from a reader. When a signal from a reader activates a tag (in passive RFID system), the tag responds with a signal back to the reader announcing its identity.
A lot has changed since the first use of RFID technology. Undoubtedly, a lot of research and development was required to invent systems that are applicable for low cost commercial applications.
Probably, the first commercial application of RFID is the electronic article surveillance (EAS) systems. They sound an alarm if a person doesn’t pay for the product and tries to leave the store. Besides that, there are multiple RFID applications today including asset management, logistics, inventories and warehouses, access control, identification of animals, tracing surgical tools and patients – you name it.
In everyday life, people use RFID technology without even being aware of it. For instance, RFID systems are used in electronic public transport and toll payment. Moreover, contactless smart cards utilize RFID technology as well and almost everyone uses them today. RFID tags are used as anti-theft devices in cars. A car will not be started until the correct key code is recognized. Further, in sports events like races, the runners may have RFID tags attached to easy identify who the winner was.
Analyses and Predictions
Researches have shown that in the next decade we can expect the growth in the value of the global RFID market. Furthermore, it is expected that the middleware segment is going to register noticeable growth.
Prices of RFID tags have fallen significantly over the past decade. The price of a RFID label ranges between 7 and 15 cents, depending on the amount of the memory, the packaging of the tag etc. It is expected that the price of RFID tags will decrease further in the next few years. The goal is to have 5-cent tags when tags are massively manufactured. A decade ago, only large enterprises could afford this technology. However, after decreasing of prices, small and medium enterprises got the opportunity to introduce RFID to their supply chains and logistic operations as well. Having that in mind, it can be noticed that the demand for RFID technology has been continuously increasing.
A huge growth is expected in the retail sector. Various companies, which have already adopted RFID technology, have been experiencing both financial and operating gains. They assert that inventory accuracy has improved significantly. Other companies should try to keep track with them and RFID is the logical choice. RFID is definitely more efficient than barcodes. A lot of tags can be read simultaneously in contrast with barcode where only one label can be read at a time. As no line-of-sight is required, a tag can be read without any visual contact. With RFID technology, waiting in queues is skipped. All products from the cart are simultaneously scanned without the need to scan every product one by one. It saves the time of customers and retailers. More important, with RFID, a vast amount of information can be tracked, including quantities of inventories and a location of any product at any time. Using that information, companies can perform various analyses to improve their business.
The healthcare sector is another important sector for RFID technology. RFID tags are used for tracking and classification of medical instruments. Hospitals are able to trace every blood sample or medication. With RFID it is easier to ensure that patients receive the correct medications and medical devices. A lot of resources required for manual inventory could be used for some other activities and improvements. Some hospitals have been using RFID tags to increase efficiency of operating room and accordingly, decrease the time between when one patient leaves the operating room until the operating room is ready to receive another patient. They track patients and equipment needed in surgical process. The data they gather help them to have the required team of doctors/nurses and the required equipment ready in the right time. Consequently, patients get the necessary care faster which is very important. But the most important, human errors in healthcare processes are decreased. This is a sector where every human error is of a crucial importance. If we reduce the unintentional errors, safety of the patients will be tremendously increased. We can expect that most hospitals globally will start leveraging value of RFID very soon.
The utilization of RFID is increasingly growing in the aerospace and defense sector. The companies that use RFID have already achieved internal business benefits and want to promote this technology further to other companies. The improvements that RFID brings in asset tracking and supply chain management help to improve companies’ efficiency in manufacturing, to decrease the time necessary for plane repairing and to reduce the number of unapproved parts. Besides that, RFID is used for baggage tracking. In fact, The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has unanimously resolved to support the global deployment of RFID tracking for airline baggage. In other words, airlines have to replace barcoded bag tags with RFID tags and start to use RFID technology to prevent mishandling of passengers’ baggage. There is no timeline, but the plan is to use RFID in 80 percent of baggage in the next three years. Consequently, the demand for RFID readers and tags will surely grow in the approaching years in this sector.
The combination of RFID and blockchain technologies could do a lot of benefits in supply chain management. Since supply chains often involve many stakeholders, sharing a unique blockchain ensures the collected data are immutable and the exchanged goods are authenticated. As a result, the supply chain is prevented from potential frauds. Without a blockchain, the collected data could be changed by other users. Therefore, there is no completely reliable visibility over the entire supply chain. Once the data is stored in the blockchain, there is no way to change it or delete it. Reliable and verified information is accessible at any time from any of the stakeholders. However, to collect transparently this information, the physical items have to be connected with the digital world. That part can be achieved by using RFID. We can uniquely identify any item by putting an RFID tag on it. Data about the items are then automatically and transparently collected using RFID readers. The collected data, which contains reliable information about the goods used in the supply chain, is then stored in a blockchain. If RFID and blockchain technologies are used in supply chain management, human factor and intentional false information will be eliminated. Different stakeholders will be able to trust that the gathered and stored information is valid. Such a solution automates a significant amount of manual tasks, and thus spares time and money eliminating the lost assets and ensuring that staff focuses on more meaningful assignments. This combination of technologies can be applied in any industry.
With all of this in mind, we can see that the future of RFID is still pretty bright. Although it is an old technology, it doesn’t plan to step away from the scene yet. Some new technologies are here, and some other may arrive, but they will hardly beat RFID in some application in the near future.
For instance, there are some newer technologies that may be used for asset tracking. One of them is Bluetooth low energy (BLE). This technology provides pretty good results in real time location monitoring. On the other hand, a BLE tags may cost 30-40 times more than passive tags and their batteries may last for only a few years. While tremendously useful in certain use cases, BLE technology is unlikely to replace passive RFID for a longer duration tracking and monitoring of asset life cycle. In the scenarios where tag price is the priority and tags are read at specific checkpoints, RFID technology will still remain the best choice. One should not be surprised when some other use cases for utilization of RFID technology appear. Indeed, scenarios in which RFID technology could be used are limited only by people’s imagination.