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RFID: An Introduction

Whatever you read about packaging, supply chains, or identification, you will come across an article or advertisement for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). Why does it seem that this technology is being touted as the best thing since sliced bread? And is it just another piece of hype meant to confuse and make us invest money in another piece of technology?

RFID is evolving as a major technology enabler for identifying and tracking goods and assets around the world. It can help hospitals locate expensive equipment more quickly to improve patient care, pharmaceutical companies to reduce counterfeiting, and logistics providers to improve the management of moveable assets. It also promises to enable new efficiencies in the supply chain by tracking goods from the point of manufacture through to the retail point of sale (POS).

As a result of the potential benefits of RFID:

  • The automotive industry has been using closed-loop RFID systems to track and control major assemblies within a production plant for over 30 years.

  • Many of the world's major retailers have mandated RFID tagging for pallets and cases shipped into their distribution centers to provide better visibility.

  • There are moves in the defense and aerospace industry to mandate the use of RFID to improve supply chain visibility and ensure the authenticity of parts.

  • Regulatory bodies in the United States are moving to the use of ePedigrees based on RFID to prevent the counterfeiting of prescription drugs.

  • Hospitals are using RFID for patient identification and moveable asset tracking.

  • RFID tags are being used to track the movement of farm animals to assist with tracking issues when major animal diseases strike.

But while the technology has received more than its fair share of media coverage recently, many are still unfamiliar with RFID and the benefits it can offer. In the face of this need for clear, comprehensive information about RFID and its benefits, this paper defines the opportunities offered by the technology for all organizations involved in the production, movement, or sale of goods. It is equally relevant for organizations wishing to track or locate existing goods, assets, or equipment.

In addition, the paper seeks to outline the business and technical challenges to RFID deployment and demonstrates how these issues can be addressed with technology from Microsoft and its partners. Above all, it explains how Microsoft technology—which provides the software architecture underpinning the solution rather than the tags or readers—can support the deployment of RFID-based solutions.

The Origins of RFID

The first disturbing fact is that RFID is not a new technology. It was first used over sixty years ago by Britain to identify aircraft in World War II and was part of the refinement of radar. It was during the 1960s that RFID was first considered as a solution for the commercial world. The first commercial applications involving RFID followed during the 70s and 80s. These commercial applications were concerned with identifying some asset inside a single location. They were based on proprietary infrastructures.

The third era of RFID started in 1998, when researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Auto-ID Center began to research new ways to track and identify objects as they moved between physical locations. This research, which has a global outlook, centered on radio frequency technology and how information that is held on tags can be effectively scanned and shared with business partners in near real time.

To do this we needed standards. The work of the Auto-ID Center focused on:

  • Reducing the cost of manufacturing RFID tags.

  • Optimizing data networks for storing and delivering larger amounts of data.

  • Developing open standards.

It became apparent that the ideas being proposed, combined with other ongoing technological and standardization activities worldwide, would help to reduce the costs of RFID tagging. By 2003, the Center had over 100 sponsors from four continents. Its final task was to conduct a large field trial with 40 participating companies in 10 US cities. Today, the work of the Auto-ID Center has helped to make RFID economically viable for pallet and carton-level tagging. The technology is also becoming more affordable for high-value items. The Auto-ID Center officially closed on October 26, 2003, transferring all its technology to EPCglobal.

EPCglobal is now leading the development of industry-driven standards for the Electronic Product Code (EPC) Network to support the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) in today's fast-moving, information rich trading networks. EPCglobal is a member-driven organization composed of leading firms and industries that are focused on creating global standards for the EPCglobal Network. The EPCglobal Network is a set of technologies that enable immediate, automatic identification and sharing of information on items in the supply chain. In that way, the EPCglobal Network will make organizations more effective by enabling true visibility of information about items in the supply chain.


Figure 1. The (not so brief) History of RFID (Source: Deloitte Consulting: Lawrence Huntley, RFID - Why Now?, RFID Forum June 2004, Deloitte)

What Is RFID Really?

But what is RFID? RFID is the reading of physical tags on single products, cases, pallets, or re-usable containers that emit radio signals to be picked up by reader devices. These devices and software must be supported by a sophisticated software architecture that enables the collection and distribution of location-based information in near real time. The complete RFID picture combines the technology of the tags and readers with access to global standardized databases, ensuring real time access to up-to-date information about relevant products at any point in the supply chain. A key component to this RFID vision is the EPC Global Network.

Tags contain a unique identification number called an Electronic Product Code (EPC), and potentially additional information of interest to manufacturers, healthcare organizations, military organizations, logistics providers, and retailers, or others that need to track the physical location of goods or equipment. All information stored on RFID tags accompanies items as they travel through a supply chain or other business process. All information on RFID tags, such as product attributes, physical dimensions, prices, or laundering requirements, can be scanned wirelessly by a reader at high speed and from a distance of several meters.

RFID Bill of Materials

So what is the bill of materials for RFID then? RFID Component parts are:

  • Tag or Transponder—An RFID tag is a tiny radio device that is also referred to as a transponder, smart tag, smart label, or radio barcode. The tag comprises a simple silicon microchip (typically less than half a millimeter in size) attached to a small flat aerial and mounted on a substrate. The whole device can then be encapsulated in different materials (such as plastic) dependent upon its intended usage. The finished tag can be attached to an object, typically an item, box, or pallet, and read remotely to ascertain its identity, position, or state. For an active tag there will also be a battery.


    Figure 2. A variety of RFID Tags

  • Reader or Interrogator—The reader—sometimes called an interrogator or scanner—sends and receives RF data to and from the tag via antennas. A reader may have multiple antennas that are responsible for sending and receiving radio waves.


    Figure 3. Examples of a Reader with Associated Electronics

  • Host Computer—The data acquired by the readers is then passed to a host computer, which may run specialist RFID software or middleware to filter the data and route it to the correct application, to be processed into useful information.


    Figure 4. Basic Operations of RFID (RFID Center: Dr Carol David Daniel, Introduction to RFID, RFID Forum December 2004, RFID Center)

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