Making Objects Smarter

By Kerry Krause

New RFID reader chips can be embedded in products to give them the intelligence to interact with people and the world around them.

For the past decade or more, companies have been making everything from automobiles to coffee-makers smarter by embedding semiconductors in them. Most smart objects have their own power (battery or connection to an AC outlet), and most of the intelligence is internal. A coffeemaker, for example, can be set to turn on at a specific time through a built-in timer embedded in a chip. But it can't react by, say, turning on when you enter the kitchen for the first time in the morning.

The challenge for manufacturers has been to give products the intelligence to react to the world around them. Over the past two years, Impinj and other technology providers have shrunk the components in an RFID reader down to the point where they can fit on a dime-size microchip. Such chips can be cost-effectively embedded into mass-produced objects.

Embedding RFID reader chips in new products equips them with intelligence that can improve their performance, monitor their quality, issue maintenance or recall alerts, provide automatic and critical feedback to a user and improve customer satisfaction. A brief tour of some recent applications exemplifies how they work.

Coca-Cola's Freestyle RFID-enabled drink dispenser provides more than 100 options—including sodas and flavored waters—from a single machine (see RFID to Revolutionize Coca-Cola's Dispensers). Embedded RFID allows the machine to keep track of more than 30 syrup cartridges, ensuring they're installed properly and determining the quantity of flavoring in each. It also provides direct feedback to Coca-Cola on which drinks are being consumed, and when.

DraftServ Technologies' DraftMagik system extends draft beer delivery beyond the bar. The RFID-enabled self-serve system applies per-ounce charges at each tap to a prepaid, declining patron balance and even sends a "thank you" e-mail after each visit—all while tracking inventories.

Ford Motor Co. and RFID vendor ThingMagic developed the Tool Link application, an option in the company's F-series pickup trucks and E-series vans (see Ford Thinks It Has the Right Tool for the Job: RFID). A ruggedized reader module in the vehicle bed helps ensure that contractors and other building professionals don't forget the tools they need. Now the popular system is also available in Ford's Transit Connect van, to help families keep track of all their kids' gear.

Marathon organizers have been embedding RFID in runners' sneakers to monitor their progress and finishing times. Now, the National Football League is exploring myriad applications. Did the ball cross the goal line? Did the player keep his feet in bounds? An RFID-enabled football and field promise to provide the answers to these and other edge-of-the-seat questions.

As you can see, Impinj's Indy and other RFID reader chips provide tremendous potential to make products more intelligent, useful, competitive and profitable. The applications are limited only by imagination. Envision how embedded RFID can improve your company's products.

Kerry Krause is the VP of marketing at Impinj, a leading provider of Gen 2 UHF RFID solutions.