What You Need to Know About Mobile RFID Readers

By Bob Violino

When paired with smartphones or tablets, these lightweight, low-cost devices can be used for a variety of business applications.

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One of the biggest trends in the business community today is the huge growth of mobile devices in the workplace. Many organizations provide employees who work outside the office or away from their desks with smartphones or tablets. In addition, a growing number of companies have launched "bring-your-own-device" programs, which allow employees to use their consumer smartphones or tablets to communicate and collaborate with customers and colleagues and access corporate networks and data.

Nedap Retail's !D Hand reader is a Bluetooth-linked device designed for the retail industry. (Photo: Nedap Retail)

The mobility trend is fueling the growth of radio frequency identification readers that plug into smartphones and tablets. There are two main types of these products on the market: small, lightweight devices that attach to smartphones and tablets and turn them into RFID readers, and light, low-cost RFID readers that become full-fledged readers when partnered with smart devices. They all support the passive ultrahigh-frequency EPC Gen 2 protocol, to meet the volume of tags being deployed in the field, says Michael Liard, an independent analyst who focuses on RFID technology. The readers can be used for a variety of business applications, including access control, asset tracking, authentication and verification, food safety and traceability, inventory management, logistics and transportation.

"This technology has been in development for quite some time, and we've now seen the creation of a market opportunity with the continued penetration of consumer-grade devices" in the workplace, Liard says. "We're seeing more employees, whether it's [production] line workers or shop-floor managers or retail associates, using these mobile devices as part of traditional auto-ID capture solutions."

A key factor in the rising demand for RFID reader products for mobile devices is that many workers are already comfortable with the form factors and functionality of their consumer phones or tablets. "These are not typical handheld readers or bar-code scanners; these are devices employees use in their everyday lives," Liard says. "So there is a measure of comfortability and ease of use."

Also bolstering demand is the fact that it can be cheaper for companies to buy mobile RFID readers for consumer devices than to purchase conventional handheld RFID readers. "The total cost of ownership is lower with these types of devices," Liard says. "And if people bring their own
devices into these environments, that also enables cost savings."

In addition, the devices can provide customer service benefits for retailers and other companies. "Employees in a store may be more approachable" than if they're using traditional RFID readers, Liard says. "If shoppers see a device that is similar to the device in their own pockets, there's a measure of psychological comfort in terms of customer experience and service."

Photo: MTI's Mini Me product allows users to read and write ISO 18000-6C tags with an Android device.

When choosing a mobile RFID reader, you need to consider the devices supported and form factor. Some readers are designed for use in virtually any industry; others are geared to specific verticals, such as aerospace or retail stores. See the table on page 33 for some leading providers of RFID readers for mobile devices.

Plug-In Readers
Small, slim, compact, convenient, ergonomic, efficient and affordable—these are some adjectives RFID providers use to describe plug-in devices that attach to smartphones and tablets and transform them into RFID readers. "Handheld RFID readers are typically expensive, bulky, narrow use-case devices, require battery charging management, require significant training and are not flexible for customization of software applications," says Darryn Prince, RFID business head at mobile reader provider Microelectronics Technology Inc. (MTI).

MTI's Mini Me product allows users to read and write ISO 18000-6C tags with an Android device, Prince says. Commercially available USB on-the-go (OTG) extension cables can be used to position a Mini Me away from the host device to extend the read range. "Since Mini Me provides the [interface] between the tag and mobile smartphone or tablet, the tag data uses the wireless networking capabilities of the mobile host [for example, cellular, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi] to communicate the data to the home office or into the cloud," he explains.

"We have customers now using and evaluating Mini Me in nearly all UHF RFID market segments and applications, including access control, interactive experiences, inventory management, document control, event management, authentication and verification, identification and tracking," Prince says.

MainTag's WaveBox Cube was designed to enable fast inventory of aircraft cabin passenger security equipment using an iPad. It attaches to an iPad's protective case and communicates with the tablet via Bluetooth. FlyTag manager, the inventory software embedded in the iPad, displays a 3-D view of the cabin and all tagged assets, and gives access to each item's information stored on an RFID tag (part number, serial number, expiration date, presence), according to Alexis Beurdeley, VP of MainTag.

Click here to view a larger version of the above chart.

The WaveBox Cube can be used for several other applications in various sectors, Beurdeley says. The agriculture, food and pharmaceutical industries are "highly interested in this device," she says, noting that the device can monitor inventory of a large number of RFID-tagged items in a matter of seconds.

The use of a tablet offers a larger, high-definition screen than handhelds, Beurdeley says. "The WaveBox Cube was designed to be attached to a smart tablet in a way that it wouldn't affect the use of the tablet or related operations," she says. "As the tablet or other smart device controls the WaveBox Cube, it sends encoding or reading orders and stores the collected data. This data can then be sent remotely to a back-end database using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Ethernet or cellular data flows."

Asterisk's AsReader "connects directly with the iPhone/iPod Touch to provide a very lightweight solution that fits into a shirt pocket," says Jim Curry, director of marketing and sales. Read/write buttons are installed on each side of the product, to enable flexible operation by right- or left-handed users, he says.

The product is suited to either in-facility or field use. The data it collects can be uploaded to corporate databases via Wi-Fi or cellular networks. It's been adopted by several industries, Curry says, including automotive, medical production and retail.

Photo: The WaveBox Cube was designed to enable fast inventory of aircraft
cabin passenger security equipment using an iPad.

U Grok It's reader, the Grokker, can be used like a conventional handheld reader in inventory and asset-management environments, says Carrie Requist, CEO and co-founder. But, she adds, because the product is light and intuitive to use, it expands areas where RFID can be used, beyond the reach of conventional handheld readers. The product was designed for natural one-handed operation, since users of handhelds are most often in environments where they move around. This leaves the other hand free to open doors, pick up items and move items out of the way, while still being able to scan and see and hear the Grokker's feedback, she says.

The Grokker can scan and buffer if the user is in an area with no connectivity, or it can send data in real time over Wi-Fi or cellular networks, making it suitable for field installers, traveling salespeople and utility workers, Requist says.

Android and iOS app developers "can now look at RFID as a feature they can implement in their apps instead of RFID always having to be the central determining feature of the solution," Requist says. "For example, legal office apps can add the ability to track and find files. U Grok It allows companies to benefit from RFID without having to invest in a major implementation and without requiring their RFID usage to be full time to justify the investment."

Lightweight Readers
These RFID readers may be light to hold, but they are no lightweights when it comes to doing the job—as long as they're paired with a smart device. Nedap Retail's !D Hand reader is designed for the retail industry, says Danny Haak, product manager for RFID. He says several hundred stores in Europe are using the device.

U Grok It's reader is designed for natural one-handed operation.

The !Hand does not plug into a smart device. "The fact that it is a Bluetooth-linked device allows the store employees to carry a mobile device around for payments and customer assistance, and only pick up the RFID reader part when necessary," he says. Bluetooth is fast enough not to limit the RFID reading performance in any way, he adds.

"Due to lanyards or other carrying methods, people don't feel it as two separate devices," Haak says. "When people don't need the !D Hand RFID reader, they don't have to carry it, but still have access to all the stock data in their mobile device. Only when they need to do a cycle count, they can pick up the reader."

Technology Solutions (UK) Ltd.'s 1128 Bluetooth UHF RFID modular ruggedized reader is unique in the market in that it's designed to be used in harsh environments (for example, at operating temperatures of -4 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit).

The company offers custom wrist- and belt-mount accessories for easier handling.The 1128 UHF reader supports a diverse set of applications, including logistics, warehousing and distribution, reading/writing data on pallets and roll cages before loading onto vehicles, and storing maintenance and inspection records. The device can access the latest mobile applications and take advantage of the smart device user interface and functionality, says David Evans, TSL managing director.

TSL's 1128 Bluetooth UHF RFID reader works in harsh environments.

The 1128 Bluetooth RFID reader is capable of scanning thousands of items at one time, so it's also suitable for hospital asset tracking and retail inventory management, Evans says. "We have seen a huge demand in the retail sector," he says. "We partner with industry leaders such as Tyco Retail Solutions, Checkpoint Systems and Xterprise to market the solution."

Riding the RFID and Mobility Wave
Mobile RFID readers are relatively new—most of the products have been introduced within the past two or three years—and it is likely new RFID providers will enter the market in the
near future. In 2012, startup Flomio, with funding from Kickstarter, introduced the FloJack, a pocketsize, one-ounce dongle that serves as a Near-Field Communication reader when plugged into newer Apple and Android devices. The company recently announced that it is discontinuing that product and replacing it with the FloBLE, due out in mid-November, which founder Richard Grundy says will provide a better user experience.

Flomio targets the "do-it-yourself market, primarily developers and hackers," Grundy says. "We sponsor hackathons and other developer events with the intent of evangelizing RFID technology adoption in all applications. We've found that the events industry has been the first to adopt our products, given their size and fast deployment."

Readers designed for mobile devices have provided enhanced antenna performance, says industry analyst Liard, but he expects vendors will work on making them even better, including offering different shapes to accommodate devices of various sizes and using superior materials to improve performance. "If you look at traditional handheld readers," he says, "one of the challenges has been around antenna design and performance" and ensuring that users can get sufficient read accuracy from various angles. "As phones get larger, wider, smaller or thinner, you have to accommodate that."

Asterisk's AsReader is suited to either in-facility or field use.

Mobile RFID reader providers believe that as RFID adoption grows and businesses deploy more smartphones and tablets in the workplace, their products will become an essential tool to help companies get a return on investment from an RFID deployment. "Enterprises use U Grok It to increase the ROI of their RFID solution by being able to have more people interact with the RFID tags, such as salespeople on the showroom floor and maintenance people," Requist says.

"In the coming years, most retail fashion stores will switch to RFID, followed by all the other retail chains," says Nedap's Haak. "The growth potential of the !Hand is enormous." The AsReader already has a significant share of the handheld RFID reader/writer market in Japan, according to Asterisk's Curry, who notes that the company is just launching the product in the United States and Canadian markets. "We anticipate significant growth in these two markets," he says.