Digital Transformation through RFID
In this age of IoT (Internet of Things) and big data analytics, there is more pressure on CIOs than ever before to look to the impressive array of new technologies available as a tool to dramatically improve their business. Pervasive digital transformation of the enterprise is the rallying call that consultants, CEOs, and most importantly customers demand of some of the largest market segment leaders in this ever-changing competitive landscape. It is no longer good enough to get your product or service to the target customer; you must get it to them, customized to their needs, and get them engaged in a transparent process of delivery and digital ownership experience that intertwines your brand as a key part of their lives. That may sound like an over-reach, but if you have not been called into a session with your leadership team that sounds like this yet, you soon will be.
One of the foundational technologies of the IoT revolution is RFID. Decades of refinement and billions of dollars of investment have been applied to this technology, resulting in both reliability and cost points that are enabling applications previous thought to be impossible. Applying RFID tags to things, including employees, materials and assets, can enable a complete digital view of your process in real time. Note that while all RFID has the characteristic of being able to wirelessly track an asset with a unique identifier, there are as many different types and formats of RFID transponders as there are business processes. The industry categorizes them by the many frequencies they operate over, the physical format they are delivered in (labels, inlays, hard tags) or the broad general family types of Passive, Active, and Visual RFID.
Passive RFID means the transponder has no internal power source or battery. These tags have at their core a tiny chip about the size of a grain of sand, powered by the energy of the RF transmission being sent by a device trying to read it. With formats smaller than ever, read ranges of up to 100’ and cost points measured in fractions of pennies, this technology is being adopted rapidly as the foundation of digital transformation of the enterprise. Where your process has a few specific points of interest (point of sale terminals, doorways between areas, or workstations) and lots of things flowing through them, passive RFID is a very cost-effective solution to digitize your asset flow and create valuable data for your process. Another area that has recently evolved in the passive world is the emergence of simple sensing. Even without a battery, passive chips are available today that can do simple sensing of moisture, temperature and even applied force. If you looked at passive RFID several years ago, you should look at it again; you’ll find prices have dropped and options have expanded in ways that might make that old initiative work today.
Active RFID in contrast has an internal power source, usually an inexpensive battery designed to last from one to five years. This power source allows them to be read from much longer distances, while also in some cases enabling very interesting advanced sensor applications such as temperature logging, motion alarms, and magnetic security latching. These tags vary in shapes and sizes, such as the well-known “Tile” tag for attaching to keys or bag zipper pulls but are generally more than an order of magnitude pricier than passive RFID. While the cost point of the tags is higher, you usually don’t have the requirement of a lot of additional infrastructure because of the range of the tag and adoption of open standards such as WiFi or Bluetooth that enable leveraging existing infrastructure. If you have a few key things you want to track or want to gather a lot of sensor data in the process, active tagging is probably right for you.
Visual tagging is a new category that has come to the RFID world. With the advance of bi-stable visual materials (able to change between semi-permanent states by electrical charge) tags can be produced that give visual flags to humans in the process. This can include color changes to indicate an asset has been cleaned, patterns appearing to flag that a tag is in the wrong place or e-paper screens to replicate the information previously applied with a paper label. The latter has been the highest growth area in the segment, as the high cost and lack of flexibility in static paper labelling is being targeted by forward thinking process designers. The foundational patents on the initial e-paper technologies have all run their course, stimulating new entrants, driving down prices, and causing a period of growth in this important segment. Today, you may see such visual tags on store shelves, luggage tags or in a hospital, adding the benefit of readable, dynamic instructions with all the advantages of tracking and real time data collection discussed above.
If you are being pressured to generate more data to feed analytics, enhance customer transparency or drive service excellence, have another look at the RFID technology available today. It might be the path to digital transformation your organization is seeking.