RFID Technology Is Powerful, But Only with Tag-Data Standards

By Michael Fein

Companies need to commit to building a better future by constructing RFID solutions based on a single standard for each supply chain.

Data-driven decisions have become critical to business today, mainly because market conditions, customer demands and resources can now shift on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. The shortcomings of monthly, quarterly, and annual forecasting and planning have become clear. So we've seen a movement toward technology platforms and open information ecosystems that tear down silos and allow people to see what's happening on the road, in the skies, at orts, and in the last mile of the supply chain in real time. Except, we must be able to see what the human eye cannot and make decisions faster than any single human can make on their own if we are to avoid supply chain breakdowns and reduce logjams like the ones that occurred in 2021.

That's why we're seeing investments increase in both hardware and software solutions that enable organizations to expand operational visibility beyond the four walls, automatically analyze what's happening and why, and then tell stakeholders what they need to do to in response. These include modern machine-vision systems, cloud-based warehouse-management systems (WMS), software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms that aggregate data to harmonize processes, and both robotics and mobility platforms that automate situational analysis, decision-making and task execution.

We are striving to close gaps and tear down data, functional and organizational silos once and for all so we—as communities, industries and economies—can become stronger in the future. But despite the impacts of these various systems and platforms, one of the most prolific technologies of this decade might prove to be radio frequency identification (RFID).

In many circles,  UHF RFID is no longer seen as an advanced technology, but rather fundamental to operations, with some saying RFID will be as transformative to industry as the barcode was to retail—and eventually the supply chain—50 years ago. Time is precious. Workers need to be able to aggregate data fast about the status of raw materials, finished goods, stocked inventory, orders in transit and equipment on the move. Without wasting a minute analyzing that data, they must be able to extract actionable insights and translate them into ideal outcomes.

RFID facilitates automated data capture, workflow execution and decision making at a scale unmatched by most other technologies, making it the solution to many of today's global trade problems. That's why we must be more diligent this year in getting RFID right.

RFID's Value Lies in the Data—and Our Commitment to Data Standards
As RFID has grown, so has the number of tags "in the wild."  More than 25 billion tags were deployed in 2021, and we're on pace to see hundreds of billions of tags on goods and equipment within a few years. (Like I said, RFID is on a parallel path with the barcode, which is now on all goods, packages and pallets in some form.) But there's a threat to RFID's success—and businesses' subsequent success in regaining control over their operations and supply chains—if data standards aren't adopted.

Without a unique tag-number system and standard encoding structure, RFID use cases will interfere with each other, causing conflict in track-and-trace applications and confusion around the accuracy of data sets. If a shipper is using RFID to track packages, but inside the packages are athletic shoes with a second RFID tag, how does the RFID reader know which data set to extract and report into the system? Or if it needs to report on all data but to separate systems? Like the barcode, it's data-standard adherence that allows RFID readers to quickly filter out the tags that are relevant at that moment and then flow the right information to the right system for real-time track-and-trace.

The data standard itself isn't as important, though. It can be GS1, ISO, IATA (for airline bag tags), VDA (for German cars) or even the  ISO-based numbering system that the  RAIN RFID Alliance is about to launch. The key thing is to choose one and use it throughout your entire operation and, ideally, your entire supply chain. Remember, the supply chain doesn't end at the warehouse or distribution center. Hospital, restaurant, retail and public safety assets need as much oversight as inventory, totes and equipment moving into and out of upstream facilities. If last-mile entities find it difficult to pull in data defined by different encoding standards, then they may figure it's best not to even bother.

The reason the barcode was so successful was that its data was ultimately standardized. We found a way for items to be easily and reliably identified, located and authenticated. Well, here we are again, aiming to repeat history, but with a technology platform that is capable of accelerating data capture and automating track-and-trace to new levels—possibly without human intervention. Therefore, we must work together to systematize the data in a way that will benefit humans in the near and long terms.

Let's start by understanding the ways in which printers and labels set the foundation—their role in producing tags with accurate, trusted and readable data. From there, we can determine the most scalable tagging method for the item, package and pallet levels at the point of production so that all downstream stakeholders benefit from RFID. Then, we can settle on an appropriate tag-data standard.

On the surface, RFID's value may be in its ability to identify, count and locate items quicker than ever. But at the core, its value is derived from its data quality, as that is what enables us to stay ahead of production and fulfillment issues—or, at least, to prevent them from being consequential. If we don't get the data right from the start, the whole solution crumbles. So let's commit to building a better future by constructing RFID solutions based on the single best data standard identified for each supply chain.

Michael Fein is the senior product manager for RFID printers and automation at  Zebra Technologies. To learn more about the importance of data and encoding standards in RFID solution design, click  here.