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The History of RFID Technology

Radio frequency identification has been around for decades. Learn how it evolved from its roots in World War II radar systems to today's hottest supply chain technology.
By Bob Violino
Over time, companies commercialized 125 kHz systems and then moved up the radio spectrum to high frequency (13.56 MHz), which was unregulated and unused in most parts of the world. High frequency offered greater range and faster data transfer rates. Companies, particularly those in Europe, began using it to track reusable containers and other assets. Today, 13.56 MHz RFID systems are used for access control, payment systems (Mobile Speedpass) and contactless smart cards. They’re also used as an anti-theft device in cars. A reader in the steering column reads the passive RFID tag in the plastic housing around the key. If it doesn’t get the ID number it is programmed to look for, the car won't start.

In the early 1990s, IBM engineers developed and patented an ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID system. UHF offered longer read range (up to 20 feet under good conditions) and faster data transfer. IBM did some early pilots with Wal-Mart, but never commercialized this technology. When it ran into financial trouble in the mid-1990s, IBM sold its patents to Intermec, a bar code systems provider. Intermec RFID systems have been installed in numerous different applications, from warehouse tracking to farming. But the technology was expensive at the time due to the low volume of sales and the lack of open, international standards.

Early app: cattle tagging
UHF RFID got a boost in 1999, when the Uniform Code Council, EAN International, Procter & Gamble and Gillette put up funding to establish the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two professors there, David Brock and Sanjay Sarma, had been doing some research into the possibility of putting low-cost RFID tags on all products made to track them through the supply chain. Their idea was to put only a serial number on the tag to keep the price down (a simple microchip that stored very little information would be less expensive to produce than a more complex chip with more memory). Data associated with the serial number on the tag would be stored in a database that would be accessible over the Internet.

Sarma and Brock essentially changed the way people thought about RFID in the supply chain. Previously, tags were a mobile database that carried information about the product or container they were on with them as they traveled. Sarma and Brock turned RFID into a networking technology by linking objects to the Internet through the tag. For businesses, this was an important change, because now a manufacturer could automatically let a business partner know when a shipment was leaving the dock at a manufacturing facility or warehouse, and a retailer could automatically let the manufacturer know when the goods arrived.

Between 1999 and 2003, the Auto-ID Center gained the support of more than 100 large end-user companies, plus the U.S. Department of Defense and many key RFID vendors. It opened research labs in Australia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Japan and China. It developed two air interface protocols (Class 1 and Class 0), the Electronic Product Code (EPC) numbering scheme, and a network architecture for looking up data associated on an RFID tag on the Internet. The technology was licensed to the Uniform Code Council in 2003, and the Uniform Code Council created EPCglobal, as a joint venture with EAN International, to commercialize EPC technology. The Auto-ID Center closed its doors in October 2003, and its research responsibilities were passed on to Auto-ID Labs.

Some of the biggest retailers in the world—Albertsons, Metro, Target, Tesco, Wal-Mart—and the U.S. Department of Defense have said they plan to use EPC technology to track goods in their supply chain. The pharmaceutical, tire, defense and other industries are also moving to adopt the technology. EPCglobal ratified a second-generation standard in December 2004, paving the way for broad adoption.


hadi aghaie 2014-03-08 06:59:17 AM
good description, well organized text thanks a lot you guys hadi
James Eagleson 2014-03-30 12:30:27 AM
For a bit more information about the early history of RFID please visit http://members.surfbest.net/eaglesnest/rfidhist.htm .

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