RFID and the Future of Engineering

By Mark Roberti

All types of engineers will need to master the technology in the coming years.

Last week, my oldest son graduated from high school. In the fall, he will head off to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), in Worcester, Mass., to study engineering. My son is not yet sure what type of engineering he will pursue, though he has a good eye for design and might pursue product design. I joke with him that he should become an RF engineer, since I could help him find a job in that field, but the reality is that almost every kind of engineer will need to master the basics of radio frequency identification in a few more years. (WPI does not have a separate RFID curriculum, though the technology is a part of several courses.)

Industrial engineers—the folks who deal with complex manufacturing systems and how to optimize them—will need to understand how RFID can be used to track work-in-process and optimize production. They will need to understand how radio waves behave in manufacturing environments, where there is a lot of metal, which reflects RF energy, and noise, which can make RF signals hard to pick up.

Aerospace engineers will need to understand RFID's role in building and maintaining the planes they design and build. Airbus, Boeing and other major aviation companies are clearly moving toward tagging most parts and storing parts histories on the tag. It's likely that many of the sensors on tomorrow's airplanes will be RFID-based, since this eliminates wiring. That's a good thing, as wires not only add weight to a plane (thereby reducing fuel efficiencies), but are also a potential source of electrical fires.

Biomedical engineering is a hot field. As we saw from this year's RFID Journal Award winner for the Most Innovative Use of RFID, the technology will impact the development of new prosthetics (see RFID Helps Amputees Manipulate Prosthetic Hands and Most Innovative Use of RFID Winner). RFID is currently being employed to track medical instruments, but in the near future, it will likely be utilized on implants as well, and as part of medical treatments.

For example, SenoRx, a provider of breast cancer treatment and diagnostic equipment, is working to introduce an RFID-based solution that will offer radiologists a new method for marking a tumor's location prior to surgery. The system, according to the company, promises to reduce the risk of infection, while helping surgeons to locate lesions more accurately (see SenoRx Uses Implantable RFID Tags to Mark Breast Tumors).

Civil engineers and construction engineers will need to understand how RFID can be used to track and manage materials, tools, equipment and workers on large construction projects. It's likely that in a few years, RFID sensors will become a common part of any bridge, tunnel, building or other structure. Wireless sensors can detect corrosion on bridges, for example, as well as dangerous gasses, excessive moisture, mold and other factors that can become hazardous to a structure, or to the people occupying it.

Mechanical engineers will incorporate RFID into the machines they design for diagnostic and maintenance purposes, and to add value. It's long been envisioned that washing machines will recognize the clothes being tossed into them and adjust the cleaning cycle accordingly, while refrigerators will let you know when you are low on milk or other goods.

Electrical engineers are already embedding RFID in PCs and tablets (see Game Changer?). In fact, on Oct. 3, 2013, RFID Journal will host the RFID in High Tech conference and exhibition, which will focus on embedding radio frequency identification in electronics to better manage the production, transportation, security and sale of electronics items. RFID will also enable retailers to personalize electronics items while they are still in the box, and to add new services.

In addition, environmental engineers are incorporating RFID into systems for waste collection, separation and recycling, and are using wireless sensors to monitor the environment. These applications will become more common and sophisticated. And, of course, computer and network engineers will be responsible for incorporating RFID data collection into the systems and networks that power all businesses and other organizations.

My son doesn't realize it yet, but this is an exciting time to become an engineer. The changes in store are probably not going to be as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution was, but it will be akin to the 1980s, when we went from typewriters and general ledgers to computers, and to the early 2000s, when we went from calling on landlines to having a mobile phone in our pockets that can do just about anything. I can't wait to see what his generation does with RFID.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.