Understanding the Suite of RFID Technologies

By Mark Roberti

There are many versions of radio frequency identification. Here's how to figure out which solution is right for your company's needs.


On Jan. 23, RFID Journal held a very successful RFID in Health Care event, co-located with World Congress’ Healthcare Supply Chain Summit in Las Vegas. I had hoped we could attract 100 people—and we wound up with a packed room of 175.

There were some terrific presentations at the event, including those by Dan Scharbach of Providence Health System/Portland, Tom Bradshaw of Wayne Memorial Hospital, In Mun of HCA North Florida and Verna Gibbs of UCSF.

Bradshaw showed, on one of his slides, that his hospital had planned to purchase 332 IV pumps for $1.34 million. Because the medical center had implemented an active RFID system, it wound up buying 53 fewer pumps, saving $276,000 in capital expenditures and another $27,000 in maintenance costs. I saw some people in the audience pull out calculators. No doubt, they were estimating how much they could save based on the number of IV pumps they have.

It always pleases me when we’re able to show companies how RFID can save them real dollars or improve the way they do business. But one challenge that all firms face—hospitals, in particular—is how to choose the right type of RFID technology to meet their needs. A number of people in the audience asked about passive versus active RFID systems, ultrahigh frequency (UHF) versus high frequency (HF), Electronic Product Code (EPC) versus other standards, and so forth. Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to these questions.

RFID is part of the large suite of auto-ID technologies, which includes everything from bar codes on the low end to GPS and highly evolved RF sensors on the upper end. In between, you have many types of RFID. Their capabilities differ, and radio waves behave differently at each frequency range. So different types of RFID systems are used for specific applications.

At the end of the one-day conference, I told the audience it would be great if we could draw a simple chart and say that for these applications you use this type of RFID, and for these types you use that type of RFID (or bar codes, or GPS). Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. In most cases, companies use active RFID to track large assets, and passive RFID to track smaller assets. But there are always exceptions.

For example, it might make more sense to employ passive RFID to track large assets if you just needed to know whether an asset went through a portal. Similarly, I had a call from a gentleman not too long ago, who wanted to track a “very valuable asset about the size of a baseball.” He needed to determine its location in a warehouse within a few feet. I recommended an active system.

This points up the need for skilled systems integrators who know a lot about all the various types of auto-ID technologies (including bar codes) and can advise companies on which technology will work best for their application. Unfortunately, not all integrators have experience with different types of RFID, and some always recommend the one they do know.

I overheard a group of executives speaking at our event. One said: “It’s hard to get good information. The systems integrator is telling me I need to add more Wi-Fi access points to get the granularity I want, and the hardware vendor is saying I don’t need to. I don’t know who to believe.”

At this early stage in RFID’s development, it’s important to hear from end users who have already grappled with these problems and can answer the question objectively. That’s why all our events primarily feature end users with real-world experiences talking about what worked for their company. It’s also important for potential end users of the technology to educate themselves about what RFID can and can’t do, and the technology’s capabilities.

We designed the program at RFID Journal LIVE! 2008 to feature case studies involving every type of RFID technology, and as many applications of the technology as we could. And some of the more than 100 sessions will focus on helping those new to RFID obtain reliable information. We will have sessions on how to choose the right technology for your applications, what questions to ask your systems integrator, how to get the most value out of the data you collect and much more.

The 120-square-foot exhibit hall at LIVE! will be the largest collection of RFID technology providers anywhere in the world. There will be vendors selling every type of RFID technology invented. Visiting the floor will be a great way to learn about the capabilities of different types of RFID technology, and the vendors that offer them.

But how do you find the vendors able to meet your needs? I’ve been asked this many times. Therefore, we created a tool called RFID Connect, enabling attendees to search for information about vendors and their products and services. You can use the tool to request meetings with vendors, or just to plan the sessions you want to attend and create a list of vendors you wish to see. Last year, more than 80 percent of attendees logged on and used RFID Connect.

So if you have a business problem you think RFID might solve, don’t be intimidated by the myriad solutions available. Come and get practical guidance about where to start, listen to end users who solved a similar problem and then visit a list of vendors with the kinds of technology that might solve your problem—active or passive, HF or UHF, ISO or EPC.

In addition, you can use RFID Connect to arrange meetings with speakers and other attendees. You can ask those who have utilized an active solution if it really works, or verify that a passive solution will work in your environment. Given the size of RFID Journal LIVE!—the breadth of the conference program and the depth of technologies being exhibited—it’s a unique opportunity to find out which technology is right for your needs. And if you are still unsure after the event, send me an
e-mail and I’ll do my best to answer your question objectively and honestly.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.