27 Mar 2015
Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are tiny electronic devices that can be embedded into products, parts, tools and other items so that they can be tracked as they move through the production and into the supply chain.
When used in conjunction with strategically-placed RFID reader devices, they can provide precise, real-time information about the locations and movements of these items. This data can then be used to track physical assets sitting in warehouses, products that are in-transit to customers, or consumer items even after they arrive at their end user destination.
How RFID Works
An RFID tag is about the size of a grain of rice, but it has a miniature radio antenna and microchip that gives it a unique 64-or 96-bit code, called an EPC identifier. This acts as a sort of a digital bar code that can be read by electronic readers as the tag — and the item it is embedded into — move through a production line, distribution center, supply chain and beyond.
Each time the item embedded with the RFID tag passes through a verification point, the RF reader senses the tag’s EPC if the tag has an active battery. But even if the battery is dead or the tag doesn’t have a battery at all, the reader emits radio frequency waves that induce a current within the tag’s antenna so that the EPC can be read.
Unlike a bar code reader, RF readers require no line of sight to read the RPC, which means RFID tags embedded inside cases of products or on pallets can be read without opening the container or breaking down the pallet.
The reader captures not only the EPC, but the time and precise location of the reading. This data can then be instantly transmitted to a database tracking the item’s location at all times.
What to Do with the Data
This information is useful to know because it can tell the item’s manufacturer a lot of different things, including:
- What the item is, as well as when and where it was manufactured
- Where the item came from and where it was going
- How long it takes the item to pass between RF readers
- Who was responsible for moving the item
RF readers are compact enough to be placed anywhere. Typically, they are installed near doors, on docks, and at various points throughout the production line, warehouse and distribution center. They also can be placed on delivery trucks equipped with GPS.
Plus, they can be placed in retail settings or even in public places so that manufacturers can track the movement of their products even after they arrive in the hands of consumers.
That means that the applications for RFID technology go beyond simply tracking and data collecting.
For example, if somebody buys a certain type of coat that has been embedded with an RFID tag, readers placed in retail stores can sense when the person wearing that coat is nearby.
When the EPC is sensed, the reader can instantly connect with the item’s database to determine when the coat was manufactured, how it made its way through the supply chain, and possibly even the identity of the person who ultimately bought it.
This data can then be used to build a personalized promotional message specifically aimed at that customer. This message can then be projected on a nearby in-store screens that the person is passing by. Or it can even be sent as an instant message to the person’s smart phone, for instance, to remind them that it’s time to get a new coat.