RFID in the supply chain: What’s next?
While RFID was previously considered a ‘forward looking technology’, it has become more commonplace with its adoption across a variety of industries.
As RFID usage becomes more prevalent, supply chain organisations seeking to gain a competitive advantage are already utilising the technology in a variety of innovative ways the industry has not seen before. The question that many providers are now asking is: where is RFID going?
The answer, it seems, is that the technology has a bright future with more value added features appearing at similar costs. The onus is increasingly becoming more focused on the technology manufacturers, who are charged with the responsibility of responding to customers' needs, rather than streamlining the existing product. Technology manufacturers and RFID tag specialists are now pushing the technology to provide solutions for the problems many industries are facing, most notably the risk of theft in high value goods and inefficiency across the supply chain.
The use of RFID has become particularly prevalent in a variety of industrial sectors. Take, for example, Indian oxygen and nitrogen supplier, Kay Nitroxygen, who reduced their turnaround time and increased worker efficiency by applying RFID tags to track the maintenance and refilling schedules of its huge steel cylinders to meet Indian government guidelines around maintenance. The compression of oxygen and nitrogen into these steel canisters naturally lends itself to being very high risk, and if they aren't adequately maintained there lies the risk of faulty valves and loss of compression, but more importantly, explosion, which poses a work place hazard. Hence, in order to continue to meet Indian government guidelines for maintenance, Kay Nitroxygen needed to find a tag manufacturer that could ensure their RFID solution not only took into consideration streamlining the maintenance schedule, but also the hazardous aspect of the job. The RFID tags they chose were explosion-proof, but also fitted with a device that allows staff to view the maintenance schedule and even gave alerts to let staff know that testing was required or going to be completed soon.
However, as uses for the technology in its current form come close to exhaustion, RFID tag manufacturers and technology providers such as Intermec, continue to integrate new technologies within the tags. Some of the main advancements in the industry involve the interplay between automated data collection (used widely across the supply chain) and RFID tags with a range of new features on them.
In some cases digital switches have been implemented into RFID tags, allowing the tag to effectively control one part of a product, including having control over switching a product on or off. These tags can even be used to enable an electronic device only after a customer has accepted the goods, so in the case of theft, the product is virtually useless.
In addition to digital switches, features becoming more prevalent across the RFID sector include tag tampering alarms, different privacy modes and password-protected data transfer to further protect confidentiality and theft. This opens up a variety of new opportunities allowing logistics operators' customers to increase security levels around the transport of high-value items such as electronics or designer clothing.
In the case of the tag tamper alarm, found in NXP Chips' RFID offering, when a tag has been removed or interfered with, it automatically sends a signal to a reader, alerting customers and logistics providers alike that the case label has been damaged in some way. This allows for greater visibility throughout the supply chain and more accountability from individual staff and organisations within the supply chain.
Technologies such as RFID are widening beyond collecting data to include invoking processes and transmitting information (such is the case with the digital switches), which will revolutionise some business operations.
Consider the revolution occurring in electric utilities: In the beginning, simple meters measured the electric power consumption, and a person from the energy company would periodically walk through the neighbourhood to read the meter and manually record power consumption for each house. Many utilities still operate in this way today, and some utilities have evolved to the next level by automatically collecting power consumption data. Automated data collection greatly facilitates this business operation, but it remains fundamentally unchanged.
Now, utilities are revolutionising their operations using smart meters to collect and transmit the amount of power consumed in a household. Smart meters are an example of a technology that is fundamentally changing business operations in electric utilities by recording consumption at regular intervals and communicating it back to the utility for monitoring and billing.
One may be tempted to think invoking data will be limited to niche applications, but like RFID in its infancy, it will blossom over time. As networks become more extensive and less expensive, more devices can be attached to the network to transmit data.
Despite extensive networks, some devices may not have network connectivity or the device may not be configured to the network yet. For "unconnected" devices, the new technology behind RFID is a superb mechanism for ensuring that the information being gathered by the device is still transmitted, ensuring up-to-date information and streamlined deployment times.
By itself, transmitting tiny amounts of data is not particularly powerful, but RFID offers the lowest cost and lowest power which enables a device with the capability to invoke data, without adding substantially to the cost of the device. As an addition, transmitting the data can be performed even when the device is off since RFID can be self-powered.
RFID is rightly thought of as a technology for collecting data, but soon RFID will become a leading technology for a variety of applications: from controlling devices that drive business operations to transmitting information across the supply chain to ensure greater accountability and security.
Contributed by Allan Neo, director of systems engineering, Intermec APAC
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