The Root of the Solution

By Sabesan Sithamparanathan

Consider the root of an RFID solution first, then discover commonality across use cases, identify challenges and solidify the foundation.

I know you might be saying, "That title doesn't sound quite right." I understand. In fact, it sounds rather strange that we would look at the root of a solution. Not only strange, but somehow almost backwards. Most of us have been taught, since a fairly young age, to look at the root of the problem to create advancement. If there is a problem that needs to be solved, look at what is causing that problem. not just at the problem itself. "Peel back the onion" is a phrase commonly used to exemplify the need to dive deep into understanding an issue before attempting to solve it. All of this makes complete sense, which is why the title of this article creates question. I guess it is unlike me not to question the norm

RFID is a continually evolving technology and space. I would go as far to say that it is a market and technology that has had a slow maturation phase regarding its adoption and application. Many solutions have been developed and implemented throughout the last 30 years. Some of those applications have proven successful based on ROI or compliance results. Some, such as applications using active RFID tags, have been proven to have robust applications. However, tag size and cost have hindered widespread use.

Sabesan Sithamparanathan

Sabesan Sithamparanathan

Passive RFID tags have amazing potential, given their ultralow costs, and are routinely used worldwide for short-distance, centimeter-level applications such as access and card payments. To date, however, software companies, hardware providers and integrators all in search of the Holy Grail of long-range passive RFID implementations have not found it, and some have wondered if there really is a grail. Solution after solution, but no clear leader and lots of fragmentation. A slow, maturing market with still a perceived opportunity for advancement in automation.

With so many players, solutions, science projects and unscaled implementations, my team and I from Cambridge University wanted to uncover the root of the solution to get to the root of the problem, to see if we could more rapidly advance a solution and the space overall. At Cambridge, we had come up with an idea to get to the Holy Grail, but we still were not sure whether it was right… and so we looked at a number of sectors.

We began by breaking the market into what we perceived as the most active spaces regarding solutions, implementations and projects. We landed on four areas we could explore: retail, healthcare, aerospace, and logistics and supply chain. Each one of these industries has RFID solutions implemented at many different levels. Retail has been actively using RFID for loss prevention and inventory management, both in stock rooms and on the retail floor. There are many players in the retail space and some great solutions that exist. Loss prevention has leaned toward acousto-magnetic (AM)-based electronic article surveillance (EAS) detection solutions, and it has more mature solutions and adoptions.

Passive RFID is used in stocking warehouses and on the retail floor with multiple levels of engagement, implementation and success, and we clearly heard both satisfaction and dissatisfaction surrounding such solutions. Although this technology is more widely adopted, we also received feedback from users of active solutions (in the industrial and healthcare sectors, for example) that maintenance and battery replacement posed a challenge and were looked at unfavorably. At the higher level of management, active tag solutions received some criticism because of cost, battery replacement and maintenance. For passive solutions, adopters and users were voicing their concerns about accuracy quite frequently. At the management level, such solutions were praised for their overall ticket price and especially around the cost of the tags.

In the healthcare industry, RFID has been implemented to help solve a few issues, but probably the prominent has been the asset tracking of medical devices and equipment. The reason for this is twofold. The first and obvious one is for improved patient care. Being able to rapidly locate where an asset is allows nurses, doctors and medical personnel to quickly gather the necessary resources in times of need. Having the ability to locate a device in real time, and to get that device rapidly, can sometimes mean the difference between life or death. There's no question that this is a great and needed application.

Beyond that, there are significant cost savings opportunities around proper management in hospitals, to the tune of billions of dollars. This is directly related to the fact that in the business of saving lives and providing proper medical care, there isn't an option to not have what you need. This means you do what is needed to ensure you have the assets needed to provide proper care at all causes. So, you purchase extra and even lease assets to enable you to have the proper equipment without having the capital expense.

This was a global phenomenon that had no borders, at least from Europe to the United States. It creates an environment in which something is there if needed, but with a lot of wasted expense and, sometimes, unused assets acting as a safety blanket. Most such asset-tracking solutions use active technology, and the biggest complaints we heard in this space were around the size and cost of the tags, as well as battery replacement and maintenance. We did not find many solutions using passive tags for this, mostly due to the need for real-time location identification and read distance. Most discussed accuracy with passive being challenging.

We found, with our research, that the global aerospace and energy markets have some similarities to the medical space, but with more applications specifically around compliance. Asset tracking is key in both the aerospace and industrial markets, with very similar needs but for potentially different reasons. Our work with Stanley CribMaster, a division of Stanley Black & Decker, introduced us to a challenge related to tracking assets when manufacturing an aircraft for compliance around foreign object debris (FOD). What an amazing, critical need that has some complexity regarding the solution.

Assets of all types and sizes are common during the assembly of an airplane or space vehicle. They can range from a piece of complex test equipment that requires inspection and calibration to a screwdriver. No matter the asset, it is critical that it be tracked and accounted for before assembly tasks are complete. If a screwdriver is left inside a wing or engine when it is assembled, that can prove disastrous. Likewise in the nuclear energy sector, there is what is called foreign material exclusion (FME). This is the process of preventing outside debris from ending up in areas where it would pose a risk or safety hazard. FME is practiced across the nuclear power generation community to increase nuclear safety and reduce power plant down time.

There is also a need to track assets between hot and cold areas within a facility, to ensure there is no cross contamination between assets leaving an area with certain levels of radiation and those without. In talking with folks in both industries, we determined that active tags were never looked at in high regards, due to the potential of a battery dying and losing accountability, and the size and form factors of the tags create significant limitations for tagging hand tools. As with the medical and retail industries, we uncovered passive solutions were challenged by having a read accuracy that made users comfortable.

After talking with many in these industries, we started to map out where the current solutions were falling short and prioritized our team's efforts. We felt it was very clear that improving the accuracy of solutions in the space would have the biggest impact. Timing seemed right. Our team from Cambridge was intrigued by advancing RFID, and there were trends that enabled us to make a clear decision on where we should apply our efforts. The first trend was that the speed of adoption for passive tags was happening rapidly, with large retailers setting the tone for suppliers to conform to tagging products with passive tags within strict guidelines. These mandates, once set in motion, increased production of passive tags to enable the market to comply.

Like any supply-and-demand scenario, the increased supply continues to drive down price and expand the market rapidly. Likewise, it also increases the focus of developers to expand solutions. It seems like a great time to step in and work on the inherent challenges in the space: accuracy, read rates and distance. If we could solve these and provide a significant advantage over existing readers in the marketplace, we could make the biggest impact to advance the RFID industry.

The root of the solution. Yes, I know what you are thinking, "You focused on the root of the problem," and you would be right. By looking at the root of the solution, we were able to uncover what challenges technologies were attempting to solve, and where there were challenges to solve in the solutions themselves. Therefore, it landed us right on the most significant challenge we could lean into to improve many solutions, many projects and the industry adoption.

So we have changed our mindset to look at the root of a solution first, discover the commonality across use cases, identify the challenges they face and begin an effort to solidify the foundation on so many solutions… starting at the root. Accuracy first. I'm happy to say we can draw a big check in that box, and I can't wait to see what is next.

Dr. Sabesan Sithamparanathan is a multi-award-winning entrepreneur with more than 15 years' experience in the IoT space. Sabesan founded PervasID based on his Ph.D. research at Cambridge University. He invented and developed the world's most accurate passive RFID technology. As founder and CEO, Sabesan successfully grew PervasID from its inception to a global enterprise, providing transformative solutions to the healthcare, industrial and retail sectors with a complete product suite. Throughout his career, he has been an expert in entrepreneurship, strategic business development and innovation leadership. Sabesan was awarded a Queen's Award for Enterprise in Innovation and the Royal Academy of Engineering's Silver Medal.