April 2003 | Commentary | IT Matters

RFID Use Limited Only by Imagination

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Logistics professionals have long viewed radio frequency identification (RFID) as a technology of the future. By fixing their vision on the distant horizon, however, they may be overlooking the real value that RFID can deliver today.

RFID technology is already used thousands of times each day in port, distribution center, and fleet operations around the world to identify employees, secure facilities, and manage assets. Worldwide, RFID tagging is growing 30 percent annually, but supply chain applications account for only one percent of total implementations, according to 2002 research by Allied Business Intelligence.

RFID Redefined

RFID provides a secure, wireless means to exchange information. Data is encoded in a computer chip that is connected to an antenna—a transponder or RFID tag. Transponders are available in many forms, ranging from brick-like enclosures to thin, flexible styles that are easily embedded in adhesive labels. These tags can be disposable or reusable.

Data is accessed by a reader that captures and decodes a broadcast RF signal. Antenna size, frequency, protocol, and power all affect data transmission range, speed, and accuracy.

There are two types of transponders: active and passive. Active tags are self-powered and broadcast their data to readers. Because they have batteries, active tags are larger, more expensive, and less flexible.

Passive tags, by contrast, receive their power from the reader, not from a battery, so they can be very small. Flexible passive tags in the UHF frequency band (around 900 MHz) can be read from more than 20 feet away. Until recently, range for passive technology was limited to a few inches or feet. Other frequencies, such as 125 MHz or 13.56 MHz, cannot reliably read tags beyond eight to 24 inches.

The performance improvements are significant because RFID is now a viable and powerful option where it was previously ineffective or cost prohibitive. Specifically, RFID can be an effective tool to secure, track, and monitor forklifts, tow motors, and other equipment. It can automatically route containers, track reusable assets, and create highly secure cargo seals.

Managing Assets

Many brewers, pallet makers, industrial gas distributors, and high-volume logistics container users have proven the value of RFID for container management. Applying a tag to each container enables operators to automatically log the asset out of the facility and associate it with a specific customer.

This results in faster returns and fewer losses, and provides the information necessary to resolve customer discrepancies. When reusable containers are returned they are automatically logged in and can be tracked throughout the facility, with no human intervention or labor required.

The net effect of these improvements is that operators can hold less asset inventory, reduce tracking and handling costs, and free up cash to spend elsewhere.

Do You Know Where Your Truck Is?

Vehicle tracking is emerging as one of the most promising RFID logistics applications. RFID vehicle tags and employee ID badges are already commonly used to control access to parking lots and facilities. The same principle can now be extended to vehicles used in yards and distribution centers by utilizing long-range tags and placing readers at strategic locations. Long-range tags require fewer readers to cover the facility, which results in lower total systems cost compared to shorter-range alternative technologies.

In less than one second, an RFID system can check credentials stored on an employee ID card and either allow or prohibit operation of the equipment. This capability can also automatically associate individual employees with equipment, which is useful for monitoring, auditing, and security.

The real-time location data can similarly provide managers with an instant, accurate view of where all vehicles and personnel are at any given time. This capability leads to improved asset utilization because vehicles can be quickly found and assigned based on need, saving both time and money.

Greater user acceptance will lead to even more innovative uses of RFID technology at logistics facilities around the world. The technology is no longer limited by range or cost, only by the imagination.

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