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Rough Riders: RFID Tags Get Rugged

Here's what you need to know to track assets in harsh environments.
By Jennifer Zaino
Aug 01, 2010—You've heard of extreme sports, fitness, music, even makeovers. Now you can add extreme RFID to the list. Today, some RFID tags are designed to withstand extreme temperatures, harsh chemicals, pounding pressure, dust, rain, shock and other hazardous environmental conditions. And these "rugged" tags are helping companies in a wide range of industries—including chemical, construction, industrial laundry, manufacturing, oil and gas, utility and waste management—achieve benefits that just a few years ago seemed impossible.

Given today's extreme market competition, it's not surprising that many manufacturers claim the "rugged" title for their RFID tags. But for this report, a tag is rugged only if it is durable in harsh environments where assets, often containing metal or liquid, require tracking.

Illustration: John Hull

"A rugged tag can withstand shock, rain, dust, light immunity, oil and chemical resistance, solar tolerance, humidity [and/or] extreme temperatures," says Neelima Sagar, a Frost & Sullivan senior research analyst. "It can handle hazardous chemicals and can withstand temperatures of minus 50 degrees to 250 degrees Fahrenheit [minus 10 degrees to 121 degrees Celsius]." Some tags are designed to tolerate even more heat. Tag packaging also may be optimized for mechanical robustness, Sagar notes, so each tag can be reused hundreds of times in physically demanding environments, or be embedded in the asset for the life of the equipment.

To choose a rugged tag that's right for your company, consider the key issues we discuss below. Then check the table on page 31 for a list of RFID vendors that make rugged tags for your application.

Illustration: John Hull

Rough Applications
First, let's look at some RFID applications that demand rugged tags, and the environments in which they must survive to do their jobs.

Beverage kegs: Makers of beer, soda and other beverages store their goods in kegs that must be washed often in extremely hot water or steam-cleaned, then dried in hot air to kill bacteria. Identifying kegs with hardy RFID tags enables companies to record information for legal, regulatory, financial or other business reasons. Ringnes, a Norwegian beverage manufacturer, tracks its reusable containers as they're shipped out from and back to its distribution center in Oslo. New Belgium Brewing Co. tracks the aluminum-and-steel kegs it uses to distribute the beer produced at its Fort Collins, Colo., brewery, to determine when kegs are filled, shipped, received and returned for servicing or refilling.
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