What is RFID: radio frequency identification technology

RFID, Radio Frequency Identification technology is very effective for tracking and stock management relying on simple tags and devices to track and locate items.

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RFID, radio frequency identification technology is now widespread in very many areas or everyday life.

RFID technology is used to track and locate items using simple low cost RFID tags that can be attached to goods or any other items. These tags are most widely seen in shops where they help prevent shoplifting theft. However RFID is also used in many other areas helping track items in production environments, provide asset tracking in warehouses and also it can be used in very many other areas including vehicle management and a host of other areas.

As a result, RFID technology is now an indispensable tool for many areas of business, providing a low cost effective solution to many inventory management and tracking requirements.

Development of RFID

RFID can trace its history back the work of many researchers in a number of different organisations in the 1970s. In one development a US patent was granted for an active RFID tag with a rewritable memory in January 1973.

Read more about . . . . Development & history.

RFID technology overview

Radio Frequency Identification or RFID is a form or wire-less communication using either electromagnetic or electrostatic radio frequency signals to enable a main unit and a tag or remote unit to communicate, often to interrogate the tag to establish its presence or extract data.

An RFID system consists of three main elements: a transceiver, its antenna and a transponder which may be a simple tag or more complicated.

Often the transceiver and its antenna may often be referred to as an RFID reader or interrogator, reflecting its function within the system.

The other element of the system is the transponder, which may also be referred to as the RFID tag and this may very in complexity from a very simple tag that responds to give its presence as in the case of the types used in shops to prevent theft, to much more complicated ones that can deliver data as well as being updated with additinal data - these might be used within a manufacturing or delivery system to check where the item to which the tag is attached may have been, e.g. indicating what processes it has been through or where it might be in a delivery process, etc.

RFID technology provides many benefits for organisations to use the system. RFID provide an easy way in which data can be collected and assets tracked:

  • RFID technology provides a low cost form of data collection and asset management.
  • RFID technology is widely used and therefore the economies of scale can be utilised to advantage.
  • RFID technology enables data collection in environments that are unsuitable for workers as RFID tags can provide data in harsh environments.
  • RFID is able to provide many reads and write functions per second, although it is not a very high data rate system, it is sufficient for most data monitoring applications.
  • Data on an RFID tag can be altered repeatedly.
  • RFID technology can be used with existing systems including bar codes and Wi-Fi

As a result, RFID technology is being used increasingly as organisations need automatic methods of tracking assets and collecting data.

RFID applications

RFID systems can be used in a variety of ways. There are many RFID applications which have gained popularity over the past years:

  • Store product identification - RFID technology can be used within shops and stores as a form of alert for goods that have / have not been paid for.
  • Asset tracking - RFID systems can monitor when RFID tags pass given points and in this way track the assets.
  • Airline baggage identification - airlines need to monitor where baggage is and route it to the required destination. RFID tags can be attached to the bags to automate baggage routing
  • Parts identification - Data can be written to an RFID tags defining the identity of a part. This can then be used within a manufacturing, stock holding or other process to identify and locate parts.
  • Production control - when items are manufactured they pass through many stages. RFID tags can be attached to items. These can be updated each time the item passes through a stage in production. This will enable the manufacturing system to track all items and know what stage they are at, and any other information such as test failures, etc.
  • Employee access control - many companies today require intelligent access control systems. RFID technology is able to provide control as well as tracking, noting when cards pass particular access points, etc.
  • Supply chain control - with manufacturing working to much tighter timescales with items such as Just-In-Time techniques being involved tracking of the items in a supply chain becomes more critical. RFID tags can be added to items to enable this to be undertaken accurately and more quickly.
  • Vehicle tracking - RFID technologycan be used to determine when vehicles have passed particular points and in this way their location can be approximately determined.
  • Livestock identification - RFID tags can be injected into animals, under the skin and this enables accurate determination of which animal is which so that injections, etc can be given to the correct animal.

These represent some of the more standard applications for RFID technology. Many more specialised applications are also in use.

What is RFID technology? - basics

RFID technology is a simple method of exchanging data between two entities namely a reader/ writer and a tag. This communication allows information about the tag or the element carrying the tag to be determined and in this way it enables processes to be managed more easily.

An RFID system comprises a number of elements:

  • RFID reader / writer:   The reader write is used to communicate with the tags that may pass within range. The RFID reader writer will normally be located in a fixed position and will be used to interrogate an RFID tag. Dependent upon the application and the format of the system and the RFID reader / writer, data may also be written to the RFID tag
  • RFID tag:   RFID tags may also be called RFID transponders and are typically located on items that are mobile. They are small and generally cheap so that they can be attached to low cost (or high cost) items that need to have information associated with them. They are also generally considered as being disposable. The RFID tag contains data that is relayed to the reader, and in some systems it may also be possible to update the data within the tag to indicate that the tag and hence the item has undergone a specific stage in a process, etc.
  • RFID application software:   Like all systems these days, RFID systems need application software to run the overall system. With many systems there will be a number of different reader / writers and the data to and from these needs to be coordinated and analysed. Application software will be required for these.

Although each RFID system will vary according to its requirements, these are the main elements which can be found.

RFID, radio frequency identification technology is used in a huge number of areas and it has become a real industry standard for many applications where asset tracking and location is required. It use has taken off in shops and retail outlets, but this is only a small part of its use. Being low cost, simple and easy to use, it has quietly become a real success.

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