Like the Car Industry, RFID Has Matured

By Greg Stewart

Recent improvements in the technology have been substantial.

  • TAGS

This month, my company, Orbiter, began installing an RFID asset-tracking system at the LeMay Family Collection Foundation, located in Tacoma, Wash., and home to the nation’s largest automobile collection. A volunteer at the foundation, Bruce Fields, talked with me about the history of the major developments and improvements in the auto industry, from the beginning of the 20th century until the late 1960s. That history was an iterative process of various technologies, he explained, such as tires, transmissions, suspensions and roads, all developed together. It took until the late 1960s to complete most of the major technology advancements—more than 60 years of development.

This brought to mind the development of radio frequency identification over the years. In my 16-year history with RFID, changes in the technology have been substantial. I recall the early years, when software tools, processing power and integrated circuits were all rudimentary. Over the past two years, improvements in hardware and software have finally made dreamed solutions a reality.

The LeMay collection is a good example of this, as it would have been impossible five years ago to perform the integration easily. This is because the solution requires a robust handheld RFID reader from Motorola Solutions, and UPM RFID‘s new long-range DogBone tag. For the first time, a person standing at ground level can read passive RFID tags attached to the farthest vehicles, stacked three high.

Here are some other examples of new, advanced RFID improvements that made LeMay’s deployment a reality:

Smart Readers: The industry took a long time to realize that smart readers (which operate with user-defined embedded code, providing increased functionality) were superior to the slave readers (which pass data directly to a server) that have been used in the past for many applications. With new mobile units, large amp-hour batteries allow eight hours of continued use. These readers, which we call sweepers, work similarly to a commercial vacuum cleaner, except they sweep data from RFID tags rather than warehouse dirt and dust. A user can simply walk down an aisle of tagged inventory and quickly sweep the device to detect tags on both sides of the aisle simultaneously, or use a handheld for detailed queries of individual items.

Reliability: Newly designed smart readers produce greater data reliability, because epoch time-stamped tag detects are stored locally within the reader, and are deleted only on a first-in first-out (FIFO) basis. Thus, data may be later recovered, even when a network connection fails. In the old days, it was thought that TCP/IP data was safe, as multiple attempts would be made to ensure that the information would get to the server. However, many developers have learned that the TCP/IP protocol will only reattempt at sending data for a set period of time before ceasing this activity.

Limited Smart Size: One current area for improvement is increasing the limited size of programs that can be directly embedded within an RFID interrogator. Current microcontroller capacity limits program size in readers. A programmer today must therefore be frugal, wisely allocating each byte in order for a solution to function properly. Some reader manufacturers are already addressing this need, but purchasers of reader equipment should know that not all interrogators are the same.

Easy Installation: Ease of installation is an area that needs improvement. Many in the RFID industry know that the real decision-maker is the employee who performs the actual installation. A manager or purchasing agent may buy a system, but if the installer is unsatisfied, it will likely be the last time that particular reader is used. This is because when an installer is missing a part—resulting in a callback—profits are lost. Sometimes, the notion of an interrogator with octopus cables connecting an excessive number of antennas is simply not the way to go. An all-in-one plug-and-play reader is becoming more popular.

The Excitement: With major breakthroughs in technology being solidified, the RFID industry—like the automotive sector—is approaching stabilization in core technologies that reduce risk for stakeholders, and make for good business. As time progresses, there will, of course, be continued gains, but for now, RFID has all the tools necessary to continue advancing profitably.

Greg Stewart is the manager of Orbiter, an RFID solutions provider based in Tacoma, Wash.