How to Implement RFID Successfully

By Bill Poulsen

Select radio frequency identification as a solution only when its capabilities provide an immediate or projected benefit to a process that makes it more effective than choosing another technology.


Ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 radio frequency identification solutions, which operate at 915 MHz in the United States, are used by a variety of industries, including retail, military and supply chain management. Often lost in the hype and technical appeal of RFID is an explanation of why the technology is an ideal solution for many warehouse and distribution management issues.

1. Manage Expectations

Companies should select RFID as a solution only when its capabilities provide an immediate or projected future benefit to a process that makes it more effective than choosing another technology. The first step to take during an RFID project, therefore, is to evaluate your business’ expectations against what a new RFID system can actually provide. Be critical of anything you read about the technology, because some sources of information may be inaccurate or misleading. Understand your company’s perceptions of RFID’s capabilities, and temper those expectations with ideas and plans grounded solidly in reality.

2. Process Evaluations

Understanding key processes, as well as RFID’s place within that equation, is the most important aspect of a successful implementation. Always look at an RFID implementation as a process-improvement project. In deciding whether to utilize the technology, it is vital to analyze the current or upcoming business practices carefully, and to determine which aspects can be improved by implementing an RFID-based solution. This entails gathering information from multiple stakeholders—usually business management, IT staff members, maintenance personnel and end users.

3. Requirements Document

Even when implementing a small-scale project, it is critical to create a requirements document, which should describe your company’s preferred process flow and the specific requirements necessary to implement that process. Significant considerations include software, hardware, RFID tags, environmental factors, regulatory concerns, reliability, security issues, network, throughput and maintenance. Additionally, functional responsibilities must be delineated and signed off in this document.

Other key benefits to a requirements document include preventing future problems and serving as the basis for system acceptance upon the project’s completion. Although requirements may change or grow throughout the project’s duration, this document will serve as a tool for managing “requirement creep” and out-of-scope tasks.

4. Performing a Site Survey

It is important to perform an RFID survey of a planned installation location. This survey should include both an RF-spectrum analysis to search for any interfering or competing signals in the area, as well as a physical survey to help plan the location and installation of any readers and antennas.

The RF-spectrum analysis is necessary not only to ensure any existing systems do not affect the readers, but also to determine if any other devices in the area, such as 900 MHz wireless headsets or radios, are adversely affected by the RFID reader transmissions. Some preliminary tag testing should also take place during this survey. An assortment of tags should be brought along and tested using a handheld interrogator, in order to get an indication of how well the tags can be read when attached to the items you are interested in tracking.

The physical layout of the area or facility should be documented and annotated in a report to pinpoint the locations at which read points will be implemented. All stakeholders for planning and implementing the project will use this report.

5. Think Hybrid

Consider adopting a hybrid RFID technology, which involves employing a combination of technologies to create your solution.

Utilize tags printed with bar codes and human-readable data whenever possible. Not only can the bar code and human-readable text serve as a backup in case the reader or RFID chip fails, but it can also be utilized in parts of the process in which using an RFID reader makes no sense. This might be a part of the process in which some form of human interaction will still be used, or when you may need to locate and identify a single item among many.

In these situations, it may be difficult for a reader to distinguish between the item you really want and the one right next to it. If you are going to use a handheld interrogator to read a tag just like you would a bar code, then a bar-code solution—without RFID—would be better than radio frequency identification.

6. Tags

Because RFID tags come in hundreds of different configurations, selecting the proper tag for your particular application is crucial. There are simple labels that can be printed, tags embedded in plastic credit card formats, various hard mountable tags, and tie-wrap-style tags. Some can be mounted on metal and perform best that way, while others will effectively be made useless if metal-mounted. Tags are available for various harsh environments, including both high temperatures and cryogenic subzero ranges.

Select several tags based on your project’s specifications, and then run comparison tests before deciding on a specific tag for your application. The other aspects of tag selection often overlooked are quality and repeatability. Although the quality and consistency of tags has improved a hundredfold since just a few years ago, choose a tag converter that you trust, and that comes highly recommended. If you don’t, you may find that one roll of tags does not perform as well as the next.

The tag’s location on the tracked item is vital. Whether it is a vial of vaccine or a shipping container on a dock, the tag’s orientation and position must be carefully picked and set up to be consistently read by the reader. What’s more, consider the tag’s placement in relation to how that item is used. If you are tagging assets or equipment, make sure the position does not interfere with normal operations or create a dangerous situation.

7. Onboard Data or Not?

Initially, one key advantage touted about RFID was its ability to store a variety of data on the tag itself, thereby making that information available wherever that tag was located. In reality, 90 percent or more of applications using UHF EPC Gen 2 tags will not require this feature. Why? Because storing additional data within a tag creates many troublesome issues—not the least of which is devising a reasonable security scheme to prevent unauthorized access to that information.

The majority of applications will simply use the RFID tag as a unique “license plate” that can be referenced to a database. Since most system users will have access to a network, that database can be easily accessed to either identify or update information regarding the tagged items. This method supports a virtually unlimited number of data fields for information that can be stored and accessed about that tag, restricted only by your database’s limitations. Restricting access to your database through normal network security features means that as long as your database is secure, an unauthorized individual who reads an RFID tag is left only with a random, 96-bit serial number instead of any useful information.

8. Cables

Cabling for an RFID project is an area often overlooked until the actual installation. However, it is an important part of any RFID installation that can affect performance, ease of installation and access for maintenance.

An RFID system may utilize a combination of Ethernet data cables, power cables and coaxial cables for connecting a fixed reader to its companion antennas. At UHF frequencies, RF losses can affect performance even when using high-quality, low-loss cables. Note that each connection point generates losses, and cable lengths greater than 20 feet can significantly reduce signal levels. The shorter the RF cable length, the better the performance.

Install Ethernet and power runs near the reader mount point and test them prior to installing a system. Take care to secure all cabling neatly and securely, in order to prevent damage and safety issues.

9. System Testing

An RFID system is not complete until it has been integrated and tested with any software applications it is expected to operate with, and until its intended users have operated it. Include ample time to test and troubleshoot the system before going live. Involve all stakeholders and, most important, the everyday users of the system. When testing, use real-world scenarios whenever possible, to verify that the system requirements have been met.

10. The Bottom Line…

In short, a successful RFID project requires the following:

1. Setting reasonable expectations

2. Understanding and designing a system to implement your company’s desired process

3. Defining and agreeing upon the system requirements

4. Collecting and analyzing the necessary site data

5. Integrating various technologies smoothly

6. Selecting the proper tags

7. Understanding the system’s data needs

8. Properly installing and setting up equipment

9. Planning adequate time for testing and changes

10. Documenting the lessons learned from each new RFID project

Following the above steps will help make your RFID integration project flow smoother, and will also provide a baseline of knowledge for each new project.

RFID technology can provide you with increased efficiency, security and visibility into your business processes, and it can make your business more profitable—but only when implemented smartly.

Bill Poulsen is the director of RFID systems at Barcoding Inc., a national systems integrator specializing in the development, deployment and management of supply chain and mobility systems based on automated identification and data capture (AIDC) technology. More than 2,500 organizations depend on Barcoding Inc. for assistance with their bar-coding, RFID and wireless applications to automate operations in field service, food and beverages, health care, manufacturing and distribution, retail, transportation, logistics and wholesale inventory.