Oct 10, 2018RAIN RFID technology company Impinj has shipped its two millionth UHF RFID reading device since it began offering the products, the firm announced this week, reflecting the growth the technology is experiencing in retail, air transportation, supply chain, health care and food. The number of Impinj connectivity devices sold, including RFID readers, gateways, modules and reader chips, follows a pattern that Chris Diorio, the firm's founder and CEO, says he had predicted, as had many in the industry.
"I've always believed you could put a digital identification on every item in the world," Diorio says. "I think we [RFID industry members] all share that vision." The only surprise, he adds, has been the fits and spurts in which the technology has grown in numerous markets.
The growth in passive UHF RFID technology has followed a path that has taken a few unexpected turns, Diorio notes. Initially, he says, RFID adoption was largely predicted to take off in logistics and supply chain management, with tags attached to pallets and crates, captured via portal readers and handhelds in warehouses or at retailer sites.
The subsequent slowing of logistics installations was due, in part, to restrictions in RF design that made it challenging to identify which portal (and thus which dock door) a pallet or box was passing through. The deployment of shields, walls and light sensors served as limited solutions. That problem, Diorio reports, is now being addressed with a new software-based approach that is bringing RFID deployments back into logistics and distribution centers.
Impinj has been among the companies developing software to detect the locations of tags based on signal strength and other characteristics, making an RFID system no longer dependent upon hardware to filter out stray reads. That change in read data approach means RFID technology can be better adapted to other use cases, such as electronic article surveillance, to identify when retail items leave a store.
For retail, Diorio says, RFID was initially adopted primarily for in-store inventory tracking, as well as for supply chain management in Asia. Now, however, many retailers are exploring the expansion of their existing solutions by installing RFID reader portals at store entrances in order to identify which items pass through the doorway and whether they have been purchased.
The software can detect not only if an item is passing through the doorway, but also the direction in which it is moving, while screening out stray reads of items located near the door but not passing through. "That's the general trend across multiple industries," Diorio says, "doing more and more with software," rather than trying to control the RF transmissions to single out a tag's location.
Retailers are acquiring RFID reader hardware for other purposes as well, Diorio notes. Impinj has been selling its connectivity devices for three primary use cases in retail: the xArray reader for in-store, real-time location data; kiosks, using Indy chips, for cashier-less checkouts; and portals for loss prevention. And in health care, RFID readers are capturing data regarding the locations of assets and inventory as items move through portals in hospital or other facilities.
In aviation, Diorio says, the air transportation industry has triggered RFID technology growth, with the IATA requiring that all passenger baggage must be tracked via RFID during the coming years. Tags will be mandated on all bags by 2020, and the infrastructure necessary to read those tags by 2025 (see NXP, Other Companies Preparing for Influx of RFID Baggage Technology Requestsax and Airline Industry Embraces RFID Baggage Tracking).
Impinj is currently in discussions with several airlines and other air transportation companies to determine what kind of RFID reader infrastructure those businesses might put in place, as well as what their deployments might look like. Such baggage-tracking solutions serve as a significant trend for RFID, according to Diorio—if not in the sheer volume of RFID technology use, then in the message that the industry is sending about the technology's value.
"Airlines and the air transportation industry don't choose technology that's unproven," Diorio states. The industry, by its very nature, he says, requires safety and reliability for any technology it adopts. The fact that the sector is now adopting RFID for all baggage, he notes, "is a really strong proof point" that the technology works, and does so safely.
The next big growth opportunity may be in the food industry, Diorio predicts. Food retailers, such as supermarkets and convenience stores, have adopted RFID more slowly than apparel retailers, because the cost of tags and tagging might outweigh the value of some of the food products being tracked. But tag prices are coming down, he says, and the use cases are becoming more plentiful. For example, stores in Japan and other parts of Asia are already offering RFID-enabled checkout stations and stores, allowing users to simply walk out of a store with their products, thereby purchasing them automatically.
While other technologies are being used for a similar purpose, such as in Amazon Go stores with optical technology, RFID provides several unique benefits that will mean goods are more likely to be on food stores' shelves. For one thing, Diorio says, it can enable the tracking of expiration dates. Therefore, for instance, if perishable foods were stored within a connected cooler, the device's RFID data could track which items were nearing their expiration dates and should thus be removed or discounted. The technology also works well with stacked products, when there is not a clear line of sight for each item on a shelf.
Moreover, Diorio says, blockchain technology is driving RFID adoption since it can be used to authenticate a product that has been shipped and received, when two parties fulfill a blockchain-based purchase and sale. "We truly believe, in this industry, that we will be able to connect every item in your world," Diorio says. "My enthusiasm just keeps growing." To date, Impinj has sold 2 million connectivity devices, as well as 25 billion tag ICs. That, he adds, equates to approximately 10,000 tag reads per reading device.