In the beginning there were only giant, unwieldy tags and readers that cost as much as the assets they tracked. In its infancy, RFID was an expensive solution for tracking expensive assets.
Author: Carl Michener
As is the way with all technology, RFID has become more nimble
and affordable. Now that tags can cost less than 10 cents apiece,
use of RFID has spread around the world. From fish to fruit,
military assets to cardboard boxes, RFID is smoothing out logistics
processes, ensuring freshness and reducing waste across industries.
You'll find it in retail and fashion, supply chain, manufacturing
and, more recently, perishables.
RFID is a superb tool for high volume logistics. Unlike barcodes,
RFID tags can store detailed, item-specific information including
size, colour, model number, price and other data. Information can
also be added as the product travels. It can record time in, time
out, date of inspection, information about modifications made,
ambient temperature and more-from point of attachment to ultimate
destination. All of this information can be read through cartons on
thousands of tags with a single pass of a handheld RFID
Industry experts are quick to point out that although RFID is more
hi tech than barcode technology, it simplifies processes to a
greater extent. "Since barcode reading involves line of sight, the
ability to read automatically requires a sophisticated conveyor and
reader set-up. RFID is simpler," says Jorma Lalla, CEO of Nordic
ID, a Finland-based manufacturer of handheld RFID computers. "The
line of sight distinction is crucial. Think of delivery operations.
If you were to install a fixed RFID system in your delivery
vehicles, manual scanning would no longer be needed. Tracking
becomes faster, automatic, and less susceptible to human
RFID has become so affordable that it's beginning to be used with
one-way cartons and cardboard packaging material (slap & ship).
One major European airline is now starting to ship their mission
critical spare and replacement parts (also tagged) in tagged
containers for easier batch retrieval.
Finding items in a shop and processing shipments in a warehouse
are run-of-the-mill logistical challenges that RFID has been
tackling for more than a decade. It's no secret that the apparel
industry has been making very good use of RFID to keep items on
shelves and streamline storeroom and distribution centre
The next evolution in retail logistics processes is Distributed
Order Management. The technology leverages detailed logistics data
to calculate the optimal way to source a product as soon as an
order is placed. It aggregates and prioritises orders from all
sales channels, optimising orders from multiple locations and
supplier sites. "It's a rules-based system that relies heavily on
RFID to know where everything is," says Lalla. "When it's perfected
it will bring us to a level of efficiency that we've been after,
well, forever. But perfection is dependent on all systems operating
in real time, and we're not quite there yet."
Efficiency up, spoilage down
Some of the newer challenges that RFID is tackling involve
freshness, weight, and returnable transport item (RTI) control.
From Taiwanese fruit to Brazilian fish, RFID is increasing
profitability while reducing waste and ensuring freshness and
Brazilian supermarket Grupo Pão-de-Açúcar (GPA) recently
implemented RFID to solve some fishy business. Until recently, the
boxes of seafood they deliver to individual stores made use of
average weights. Fish don't come in a standard weight, and it was
never practical to keep track of the weights of individual boxes.
As a result, the actual weight of a box could be one or two kilos
more or less than the average weight. A discrepancy of a kilo or
two might not seem like much-and should even out over the course of
many shipments-but with hundreds of stores, the numbers add up. Add
the fact that it could cause managers to run out of fish
prematurely, and you can see how this can be a problem.
The retailer has implemented RFID to replace the average weight
with the actual weight, improving accounting and reducing
out-of-stocks. A side benefit is less container attrition-since GPA
knows where and when the boxes come and go, they are less likely to
be expropriated or put to unintended use. "Reducing attrition is
one of the principal benefits of returnable transport items," says
Sander Merkx, Partner at Dutch Systems Integrator Mieloo &
Alexander. "Our clients time-track their containers to tell if
there's something wrong." When tagged skids or boxes come back
later than expected-or not at all-it becomes obvious that they are
being put to unintended use. "The information that RFID supplies is
extremely granular, the data indisputable. That tends to keep
everyone doing things as they should," summarises Merkx.
A Taiwanese fruit producer, Je-Nong Cooperative Farm, has moved
from cardboard to RTI boxes for fruit, but for different reasons.
Produce is now delivered from farms right to its final destination
in RFID-tagged boxes, reducing handling and eliminating the need
for disposable cardboard. RFID tagging also helps with customs
processes, thanks to temperature monitoring functionality. Tags
monitor and record temperature and humidity within storage coolers.
When conditions fluctuate too much, an alert draws the attention of
personnel. Tags record atmospheric data, providing information that
enables customs officers-especially in Japan-to quickly clear fruit
shipments from quarantine. In the past, those sensors were manually
monitored 24 hours per day, seven days a week, in order to maintain
a record of conditions.
From military to run-of-the-mill
RFID technology is changing fast. As it gets more sophisticated,
it gets simpler and less expensive. In 2005 the U.S. Army began
testing RFID mesh networking, an asset location technology
consisting of wireless mesh nodes using active UHF tags with
powerful transmitters. It was an expensive, hi tech solution with
bugs that needed working out. As of 2012, most of the bugs were
gone. High-throughput, low-jitter, low-delay mesh networking just
works, even as some elements of the network move out of range. They
automatically form into independent networks, seamlessly coalescing
when brought back within range.
Mesh has its advantages, but it's still an expensive solution.
At its plant in Saltillo, Mexico, Daimler Trucks North America has
found a far cheaper way to do essentially the same thing, albeit
with assets that don't move much. Daimler equipped its yard trucks
with RFID scanners that constantly create and update trailer
inventory from passive trailer tags using 4G networking as they
drive around the yard. 4G, combined with passive RFID and a yard
truck going about its business shuttling trailers to and fro, has
achieved much the same result as mesh technology-at a tiny fraction
of the price.
Privacy, people and pigs
All of this is progress as you would expect: the world is waking
up to the incredible efficiencies that come with RFID. But that's
just the start. Emerging uses for logistics push the boundaries of
technology and, where people tracking is concerned, privacy.
PlayPass, an event organization and marketing firm, has developed
BandID-a distinctive, woven smart bracelet that carries an RFID
tag. Bracelets are mailed to concertgoers ahead of time, allowing
crowds to flow through checkpoints and eliminating choke points.
Different bracelets can allow for different clearances as
well-certain tags can grant VIP access. BandID also acts as an
internal control. It restricts the movements of employees at
massive events such as Belgium's Rock Werchter, where some tend to
the needs of rock stars, while others are allowed only in food
BandID also enables aggregate reading, to monitor the number of
people in any given area for crowd control in these massive 300,000
visitor events. A new trend in such events is to combine RFID
reading with social network fun-by scanning your wristband at a
kiosk, you can let friends all over the world know that you are at
a certain stage, tent or podium. While novel and cool, such uses of
RFID can also be contentious: anyone with a reader can monitor the
movement of concertgoers or, for that matter, any one wearing a
Privacy is not an issue for pigs, however. "There are more pigs in
Holland and Denmark than there are people. Cattle too," says Hielke
van Oostrum, head of Sales & Operations at Nordic ID for the
BeNeLux and Scandinavian countries. Demands for food traceability
are of course growing at regulatory and consumer levels. "We're
seeing the use of low frequency tags for animals for vaccination
purposes," continues van Oostrum. 'I don't think it will be long
before the food sector moves to ultra high frequency for mass
reading." He acknowledges that farm trials have been taking place
since 2010, with good results.
Into the future
RFID has come a long way since simple asset tracking, and it's
got much further to go. Our experts agree that the future consists
of RFID-tagged RTIs. "It might take as long as ten years," says
Merkx. "Tagging is always the bottleneck. But it's either pay for
disposable containers for years and years, or invest in tagged
RTIs. Do the math and the answer becomes obvious." van Oostrum
notes that logistics processes are facilitated with, and often
driven by, RTIs. "Just one grower of Hortensia flowers might use
250,000 tags," he observes. "The growth in RTIs is driving
wholesale RFID adoption. It won't be long now before most logistics
processes are RFID-enabled."
[Left] Jorma Lalla is CEO of Nordic
ID, a leading manufacturer and provider of efficient store
operations management with RFID for apparel and
[Middle] Sander Merkx is a Partner
at Mieloo & Alexander Business Integrators, a systems
integrator based in Hoofddorp, Netherlands specialising in
technology-enabled supply chain improvement.
[Right] Hielke van Oostrum is
Director, Sales & Operations, Nordic ID, for the BeNeLux
countries and Scandinavia.