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Beyond The Supply Chain

Only when RFID becomes integrated with industrial automation, process control and manufacturing systems will the technology become truly ubiquitous.
By David Crump
Mar 20, 2006With RFID technology being rediscovered and increasingly deployed over the past several years, it is important to remember that the use of RFID need not be limited merely to asset identification and tracking-type applications. Though this may, in fact, be a most effective use for the technology at present, the potential also exists for its use in process control, discrete manufacturing, utility operations and many other industrial settings.

Nevertheless, like any other technology, RFID cannot exist in a vacuum. To be utilized effectively for any application, an RFID system must integrate—that is, communicate and work effectively with—other hardware devices and software systems.

How RFID is Used Today
RFID systems are most commonly used in applications for asset identification, tracking and management. Data stored within an individual RFID tag identifies an asset and can provide such information as the owner or manufacturer, intended destination, current location, serial number and shipping and handling instructions. These types of applications typically use passive RFID tags, but in increasingly sophisticated applications, more detailed data, such as assembly instructions, can be included in an active (battery-powered) RFID tag. For example, an RFID tag in an automotive plant can specify the color of paint for a car body as it enters a paint spray area on the production line.

RFID is also frequently used for identification purposes in toll payment and access control applications. In these settings, RFID tags identify a vehicle as it approaches a toll plaza or security gate, then sends a signal to a lane controller or automated lock so the vehicle can pass through unimpeded.

In short, by implementing RFID—a complete system of transceivers and tags—one can achieve visibility to any asset within the RF range. This visibility creates all types of monitoring and data acquisition capabilities, and the gathered data can be aggregated and used in innumerable ways.

Perhaps more intriguing is the possibility—if RFID systems are cleverly integrated with an organization's line of business equipment—for that equipment to act (to some degree) almost independently on the information it receives via RFID. In this way, RFID is an important component of the burgeoning M2M (machine-to-machine) communication movement.

Again, though, all of this is contingent upon the RFID system's ability to integrate successfully with the other hardware and software systems found in the environment in which the RFID system is deployed. In industrial automation environments, this includes devices such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), input/output (I/O) systems and programmable automation controllers (PACs).

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