RFID Tags: Part 1 (What’s all the hype?)

November 20, 2010

“This will change our lives completely.” We’ve heard it all before, but once again tech firms and retailers say a new technology will fundamentally alter our world. The magic word is RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification.

Oh no, not another tech revolution. What’s the hype all about?

Think barcodes, and how much easier they’ve made our lives. For consumers the checkout line is faster, for companies it is easier to control inventory. Now think radio barcodes, little tags that talk. No need to pass each individual item past a laser scanner.

Instead, hundreds of tags can be read in seconds and the scanner can tell the cashier or warehouse manager not just what kind of products they are, but which individual product are in the lot. And now take it further and think big; RFID could allow you to identify the exact location of every single asset on your production line, your marshalling yard, in your long supply chain stretching from Beijing to Burnaby.

It could alert you to “unusual” behaviour, for example stop the unauthorised car from filling up at the company gas pump, or tell security that someone, maybe a thief, takes five packs of razor blades from the shelf – instead of the normal amount of one.

And what if a machine can be operated only by workers wearing the right kind of – tagged – safety equipment?

RFID Label

Great, how does it work?

RFID tags are tiny microchips – about the size of a full stop on your computer screen – that hold a unique identifier number. They are attached to a small antenna. So-called “passive” tags are small and cheap (about 13 cents each), but only work at a range of up to five metres and require you to install an array of expensive readers $400 – $5000 each).

“Active” tags are larger, because they need a battery, and more expensive (about $10), but have a much wider range and can be read with fewer and cheaper readers. However, the technology is developing fast and tags are getting ever smaller and cheaper.

RFID tags can be combined with sensors. A tagged crate of refrigerated goods could tell the system whether perishable goods inside got too hot. Tagged barrels of volatile chemicals could alert managers if too many of them are stored closely together. The applications are endless.

All this is already happening?

In total, 2.31 billion tags will be sold this year, up from 1.98 billion in 2009. Most of the growth in this period is due to an increase in use of passive tags. For passive tags, the biggest category of use is asset tracking of large or very valuable items, for example pallets or containers, in many closed-loop systems.

One area of growth recently is in use of RFID tagging in the apparel industry. However, the biggest spenders are still governments, who are able to implement large RFID schemes such as animal tagging, transit ticketing, people, animal and pet identification, etc., where the paybacks are typically greater efficiency and improved safety. Rapid ROI is less of a concern for them.

According to research data, the biggest sectors by numbers of tags are contactless cards (for transit, secure access, purchasing etc), using 450 million tags, followed by RFID tickets (for transit ticketing) 380 million tags, and then apparel 300 million tags. By value, just over $1 billion will be spent on RFID cards in 2010 and $240 million on tags for passports. $36 million will be spent on tags for apparel in total.

These tags will broadcast what I’ve bought and what I wear?

Ah yes, that’s a sore point. Most retailers wince when you mention it. In the United States privacy advocates and some politicians have already raised the issue. Industry experts promise we won’t have to worry.

RFID tags are supposed to hold nothing but a unique number. If you walk into a shop with a bag of shopping bought elsewhere, the company may know that you carry 23 tagged items, but its database won’t have a match for these numbers and will ignore them.

However, it would know products that you bought in the store previously, and some retailers are now mulling whether to wipe tags at the checkout. That, though, would also wipe out one of RFID’s benefits, making it easier to return goods for exchange.

So many radio transmitters, isn’t that dangerous for my health?

Not really. The frequencies used are at low levels in the normal radio spectrum and experts currently don’t predict any particular health issues.

[Taken from “Q&A: What is the RFID-hype all about?” BBC News and “RFID in 2010: The New Dawn” PIWorld.com]

RFID Tags: Part 2 (Printable nanocircuits to replace the humble barcode?)

Find more like this: Emerging Technologies, Featured

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November 22, 2010
2:07 pm

great, a little radio transmitter in everything you buy, big brother is becoming more and more a reality. At present, the Universal Product Code (UPC) implemented with barcodes allows each product sold in a store to have a unique number that identifies that product. Work is proceeding on a global system of product identification that would allow each individual item to have its own number. When the item is scanned for purchase and is paid for, the RFID tag number for a particular item can be associated with a credit card number. surely that must frighten you?

i also find the last sentence of this article particularly disturbing. “The frequencies used are at low levels in the normal radio spectrum and experts currently don’t predict any particular health issues.” it seems to me that a little more long term research into the possible side effects should be a priority, especially given that RFID chips implanted in pets have been proven to cause tumors! Asbestos was considered to be harmless to ones health at one time and look how that turned out. i for one think that there are enough radio waves bombarding us 24/7 already. it has already been proven that cell phone towers and the radios inside the phones increase the formation of tumors by over 70%. and now we want to put them all over our body, homes, workplaces? crazy.

perhaps businesses should take a step back from trying to maximize their profits at the expense of their customers and employees health. RFID is just another way for companies to increase profit while reducing their workforce which is just going to result in more people unemployed.