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Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID) is an automatic identification method, relying on storing and remotely retrieving data using devices called RFID tags or transponders. An RFID tag is a small object that can be attached to or incorporated into a product, animal, or person. RFID tags contain silicon chips and antennas to enable them to receive and respond to radio-frequency queries from an RFID transceiver. Passive tags require no internal power source, whereas active tags require a power source.
What is automatic identification?
Automatic identification, or auto ID for short, is the broad term given to a host of technologies that are used to help machines identify objects. Auto identification is often coupled with automatic data capture. That is, companies want to identify items, capture information about them and somehow get the data into a computer without having employees type it in. The aim of most auto-ID systems is to increase efficiency, reduce data entry errors and free up staff to perform more value-added functions, such as providing customer service. There is a host of technologies that fall under the auto-ID umbrella. These include bar codes, smart cards, voice recognition, some biometric technologies (retinal scans, for instance), optical character recognition (OCR) and radio frequency identification (RFID).
What is RFID?
Radio frequency identification, or RFID, is a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to automatically identify people or objects. There are several methods of identification, but the most common is to store a serial number that identifies a person or object, and perhaps other information, on a microchip that is attached to an antenna (the chip and the antenna together are called an RFID transponder or an RFID tag). The antenna enables the chip to transmit the identification information to a reader. The reader converts the radio waves reflected back from the RFID tag into digital information that can then be passed on to computers that can make use of it.
Is RFID better than using bar codes?
RFID is not necessarily “better” than bar codes. The two are different technologies and have different applications, which sometimes overlap. The big difference between the two is bar codes are line-of-sight technology. That is, a scanner has to “see” the bar code to read it, which means people usually have to orient the bar code toward a scanner for it to be read. Radio frequency identification, by contrast, doesn’t require line of sight. RFID tags can be read as long as they are within range of a reader. Bar codes have other shortcomings as well. If a label is ripped or soiled or has fallen off, there is no way to scan the item, and standard bar codes identify only the manufacturer and product, not the unique item. The bar code on one milk carton is the same as every other, making it impossible to identify which one might pass its expiration date first.
Will RFID replace bar codes?
It’s very unlikely. Bar codes are inexpensive and effective for certain tasks, but RFID and bar codes will coexist for many years.
Is RFID new?
RFID is a proven technology that’s been around since at least the 1970s. Up to now, it’s been too expensive and too limited to be practical for many commercial applications. But if tags can be made cheaply enough, they can solve many of the problems associated with bar codes. Radio waves travel through most non-metallic materials, so they can be embedded in packaging or encased in protective plastic for weatherproofing and greater durability. And tags have microchips that can store a unique serial number for every product manufactured around the world.
If RFID has been around so long and is so great, why aren’t all companies using it?
Many companies have invested in RFID to get the advantages it offers. These investments are usually made in closed-loop systems—that is, when a company is tracking goods that never leave its own control. That’s because some existing RFID systems use proprietary technology, which means that if company A puts an RFID tag on a product, it can’t be read by Company B unless they both use the same RFID system from the same vendor. Another reason is the price. If a company tracks assets within its own four walls, it can reuse the tags over and over again, which is cost-effective. But for a system to work in an open supply chain, it has to be cheap because the company that puts the tag on a case or pallet is unlikely to be able to reuse it.
What has prevented RFID from taking off until now?
One issue is standards. There are well-developed standards for low- and high-frequency RFID systems, but most companies want to use UHF in the supply chain because it offers longer read range—up to 20 feet under good conditions. UHF technology is relatively new, and standards weren’t established until recently. Another issue is cost. RFID readers typically cost $1,000 or more. Companies would need thousands of readers to cover all their factories, warehouses and stores. RFID tags are also fairly expensive—20 cents or more—which makes them impractical for identifying millions of items that cost only a few dollars.
Are any companies using RFID today?
Yes. Thousands of companies around the world use RFID today to improve internal efficiencies. Club Car, a maker of golf carts uses RFID to improve efficiency on its production line (subscribers, see Golf Car Maker Scores with RFID). Paramount Farms—one of the world’s largest suppliers of pistachios—uses RFID to manage its harvest more efficiently (see Farm Harvests RFID’s Benefits). NYK Logistics uses RFID to improve the throughput of containers at its busy Long Beach, Calif., distribution center (see Logistics Gets Cheaper by the Yard). And many other companies are using RFID for a wide variety of applications. (See Case Studies for more examples of how RFID is benefiting companies today.)
What are some of the most common applications for RFID?
RFID is used for everything from tracking cows and pets to triggering equipment down oil wells. It may sound trite, but the applications are limited only by people’s imagination. The most common applications are payment systems (Mobil Speedpass and toll collection systems, for instance), access control and asset tracking. Increasingly, companies are looking to use RFID to track goods within their supply chain, to work in process and for other applications.
Where will the initial benefits of RFID technology be?
RFID technology can deliver benefits in many areas, from tracking work in process to speeding up throughput in a warehouse. Visit RFID Journal’s Case Studies section to see how companies are using the technology’s potential in manufacturing and other areas. As the technology becomes standardized, it will be used more and more to track goods in the supply chain. The aim is to reduce administrative error, labor costs associated with scanning bar codes, internal theft, errors in shipping goods and overall inventory levels.
How does an RFID system work?
An RFID system consists of a tag made up of a microchip with an antenna, and an interrogator or reader with an antenna. The reader sends out electromagnetic waves. The tag antenna is tuned to receive these waves. A passive RFID tag draws power from the field created by the reader and uses it to power the microchip’s circuits. The chip then modulates the waves that the tag sends back to the reader, which converts the new waves into digital data. For more information on the components of a complete system used in businesses, see Getting Started.
What is the difference between low-, high-, and ultra-high frequencies?
Just as your radio tunes in to different frequencies to hear different channels, RFID tags and readers have to be tuned to the same frequency to communicate. RFID systems use many different frequencies, but generally the most common are low-frequency (around 125 KHz), high-frequency (13.56 MHz) and ultra-high-frequency or UHF (860-960 MHz). Microwave (2.45 GHz) is also used in some applications. Radio waves behave differently at different frequencies, so you have to choose the right frequency for the right application.
How do I know which frequency is right for my application?
Different frequencies have different characteristics that make them more useful for different applications. For instance, low-frequency tags use less power and are better able to penetrate non-metallic substances. They are ideal for scanning objects with high-water content, such as fruit, but their read range is limited to less than a foot (0.33 meter). High-frequency tags work better on objects made of metal and can work around goods with high water content. They have a maximum read range of about three feet (1 meter). UHF frequencies typically offer better range and can transfer data faster than low- and high-frequencies. But they use more power and are less likely to pass through materials. And because they tend to be more “directed,” they require a clear path between the tag and reader. UHF tags might be better for scanning boxes of goods as they pass through a dock door into a warehouse. It is best to work with a knowledgeable consultant, integrator or vendor that can help you choose the right frequency for your application.
Do all countries use the same frequencies?
Most countries have assigned the 125 kHz or 134 kHz area of the radio spectrum for low-frequency systems, and 13.56 MHz is used around the world for high-frequency systems. But UHF RFID systems have only been around since the mid-1990s, and countries have not agreed on a single area of the UHF spectrum for RFID. Europe uses 868 MHz for UHF, while the U.S. uses 915 MHz. Until recently, Japan did not allow any use of the UHF spectrum for RFID, but it is looking to open up the 960 MHz area for RFID. Many other devices use the UHF spectrum, so it will take years for all governments to agree on a single UHF band for RFID. Governments also regulate the power of the readers to limit interference with other devices. Some groups, such as the Global Commerce Initiative, are trying to encourage governments to agree on frequencies and output. Tag and reader makers are also trying to develop systems that can work at more than one frequency, in order to get around the problem.
I’ve heard RFID can be used with sensors. Is that true?
Yes. Some companies are combining RFID tags with sensors that detect and record temperature, movement and even radiation. One day, the same tags used to track items moving through the supply chain may also alert staff if they are not stored at the right temperature, if meat has gone bad or if someone has injected a biological agent into food. (Subscribers, see RFID Sensors: From Battlefield Intelligence To Consumer Protection.)
How much information can an RFID tag store?
It depends on the vendor and the application, but typically a tag carries no more than 2KB of data—enough to store some basic information about the item it is on. Companies are now looking at using a simple “license plate” tag that contains only a 96-bit serial number. The simple tags are cheaper to manufacture and are more useful for applications where the tag will be disposed of with the product packaging.
What’s the difference between read-only and read-write RFID tags?
Microchips in RFID tags can be read-write, read-only or “write once, read many” (WORM). With read-write chips, you can add information to the tag or write over existing information when the tag is within range of a reader. Read-write tags usually have a serial number that can’t be written over. Additional blocks of data can be used to store additional information about the items the tag is attached to (these can usually be locked to prevent overwriting of data). Read-only microchips have information stored on them during the manufacturing process. The information on such chips can never be changed. WORM tags can have a serial number written to them once, and that information cannot be overwritten later.
What’s the difference between passive and active tags?
Active RFID tags have a transmitter and their own power source (typically a battery). The power source is used to run the microchip’s circuitry and to broadcast a signal to a reader (the way a cell phone transmits signals to a base station). Passive tags have no battery. Instead, they draw power from the reader, which sends out electromagnetic waves that induce a current in the tag’s antenna. Semi-passive tags use a battery to run the chip’s circuitry, but communicate by drawing power from the reader. Active and semi-passive tags are useful for tracking high-value goods that need to be scanned over long ranges, such as railway cars on a track, but they cost more than passive tags, which means they can’t be used on low-cost items. (There are companies developing technology that could make active tags far less expensive than they are today.) End-users are focusing on passive UHF tags, which cost less than 40 cents today in volumes of 1 million tags or more. Their read range isn’t as far—typically less than 20 feet vs. 100 feet or more for active tags—but they are far less expensive than active tags and can be disposed of with the product packaging.
What is the read range for a typical RFID tag?
There really is no such thing as a “typical” RFID tag, and the read range of passive tags depends on many factors: the frequency of operation, the power of the reader, interference from other RF devices and so on. In general, low-frequency tags are read from a foot (0.33 meter) or less. High-frequency tags are read from about three feet (1 meter) and UHF tags are read from 10 to 20 feet. Where longer ranges are needed, such as for tracking railway cars, active tags use batteries to boost read ranges to 300 feet (100 meters) or more.
What is tag collision?
Tag collision occurs when more than one transponder reflects back a signal at the same time, confusing the reader. Different vendors have developed different systems for having the tags respond to the reader one at a time. These involve using algorithms to “singulate” the tags. Since each tag can be read in milliseconds, it appears that all the tags are being read simultaneously.
What is energy harvesting?
Most passive RFID tags simply reflect back waves from the reader. Energy harvesting is a technique in which energy from the reader is gathered by the tag, stored momentarily and transmitted back at a different frequency. This method may improve the performance of passive RFID tags dramatically. (Subscribers, see A New Approach to RFID.)
What is a chipless RFID tag?
“Chipless RFID” is a generic term for systems that use RF energy to communicate data but don’t store a serial number in a silicon microchip in the transponder. Some chipless tags use plastic or conductive polymers instead of silicon-based microchips. Other chipless tags use materials that reflect back a portion of the radio waves beamed at them. A computer takes a snapshot of the waves beamed back and uses it like a fingerprint to identify the object with the tag. Companies are experimenting with embedding RF reflecting fibers in paper to prevent unauthorized photocopying of certain documents. Chipless tags that use embedded fibers have one drawback for supply chain uses—only one tag can be read at a time.
I’ve heard that RFID doesn’t work around metal and water. Does that mean I can’t use it to track cans or liquid products?
No. Radio waves bounce off metal and are absorbed by water at ultra-high frequencies. That makes tracking metal products or those with high water content problematic, but good system design and engineering can overcome this shortcoming. Low- and high-frequency tags work better on products with water and metal. In fact, there are applications in which low-frequency RFID tags are actually embedded in metal auto parts to track them.
Who are the leading RFID tag vendors?
There are many different RFID vendors with different areas of expertise. Some make active tags. Some make passive tags. Some focus only on UHF. Others sell low-, high- and ultra-high frequency systems. RFID Journal has created a searchable database of RFID vendors around the world. Click on Find a Vendor in the left-hand navigation bar to locate the type of vendor you are looking for.
What is an agile reader?
An agile reader is one that can read tags operating at different frequencies or using different methods of communication between the tags and readers.
What are intelligent and dumb readers?
These terms are not precise, but many people use “intelligent reader” to describe one that has the ability not just to run different protocols, but also to filter data and even run applications. Essentially, it is a computer that communicates with the tags. A “dumb” reader, by contrast, is a simple device that might read only one type of tag using one frequency and one protocol. This type typically has very little computing power, so it can’t filter reads, store tag data and so on.
What is reader collision?
One problem encountered with RFID is that the signal from one reader can interfere with the signal from another where coverage overlaps. This is called reader collision. One way to avoid the problem is to use a technique called time division multiple access, or TDMA. In simple terms, the readers are instructed to read at different times, rather than both trying to read at the same time. This ensures that they don’t interfere with each other. But it also means any RFID tag in an area where two readers overlap will be read twice. So the system has to be set up so that if one reader reads a tag, another reader does not read it again.
What is “dense reader” mode?
This is a mode of operation that prevents readers from interfering with one another when many are used in close proximity to one another. Readers hop between channels within a certain frequency spectrum (in the United States, they can hop between 902 MHz and 928 MHz) and may be required to listen for a signal before using a channel. If they “hear” another reader using that channel, they go to another channel to avoid interfering with the reader on that channel.
Can Class 1 and Class 0 readers be upgraded to read Gen 2 tags?
In most cases, a reader that reads Class 1 or Class 0 tags, or both, can be upgraded to read EPC Gen 2 tags by changing the reader firmware. However, EPCglobal plans to certify three different levels of Gen 2-compliant readers. At the lowest level, readers will be certified to work only when there are no other readers within a 1 km radius. The next level will be for readers capable of being deployed with several readers within a 1 km radius. The highest level will be certified to work alongside 50 or more readers within a 1km radius. Readers might need a hardware upgrade, as well as a software upgrade, to achieve the highest level of certification.
Who are the leading RFID reader vendors?
There are many different RFID reader makers. They may make smart readers or dumb readers. Some focus only on UHF. Others sell low-, high- and ultra-high frequency systems. RFID Journal has created a searchable database of RFID vendors around the world. Click on Find a Vendor in the left-hand navigation bar to locate the type of vendor you are looking for.
The Cost of RFID Equipment
Can I buy a 5-cent RFID tag?
There is no such thing as a 5-cent RFID tag that can store a unique serial number. (There are chipless RFID systems that cost less than 5 cents per tag, however.) EPCglobal’s goal is to drive adoption to the point where massive numbers of tags are made each year and the cost drops to 5 cents per tag. It will take at least four years to reach the volumes necessary, though, and many experts say that we may never see a 5-cent tag.
How much does an RFID tag cost today?
Most companies that sell RFID tags do not quote prices because pricing is based on volume, the amount of memory on the tag and the packaging of the tag (whether it’s encased in plastic or embedded in a label, for instance). Generally speaking, a 96-bit EPC tag costs from 20 to 40 U.S. cents. If the tag is embedded in a thermal transfer label on which companies can print a bar code, the price rises to 40 cents and up. Low-frequency transponders in glass capsules are about $3.50 each and a transponder in a plastic card or key fob can be $4.00 or more. High-frequency transponders range from about $2.50 (in a card) to $6.00 or more (for a key fob or other special form factor).
How much do RFID readers cost today?
Most UHF readers cost from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the features in the device. Companies may also have to buy each antenna separately, along with cables. Antennae are about $250 and up. The price of readers is expected to fall as companies purchase them in large volumes. Low- and high-frequency readers range in price depending on different factors. A low-frequency reader model (a circuit board that can be put into another device) can be under $100, while a fully functional standalone reader can be $750. High-frequency reader modules are typically $200 to $300. A standalone reader can be about $500.
How much does a fully functional RFID system cost?
The cost depends on the application, the size of the installation, the type of system and many other factors, so it is not possible to give a ballpark figure. In addition to tag and reader costs, companies need to purchase middleware to filter RFID data. They may need to hire a systems integrator and upgrade enterprise applications, such as warehouse management systems. They may also need to upgrade networks within facilities. And they will need to pay for the installation of the readers. Not only do the readers need to be mounted, they need electrical power and to be connected to a corporate network.
How can I get price quotes from vendors?
RFID Journal has developed an automated Request for Quote (RFQ) wizard that our subscribers can use for free. The system asks you a few questions about the type of technology or products you are looking for. It then searches our database of more than 500 vendors for those that can fulfill your request. You can select which ones you want to send an RFQ to (or a request for information or proposal). You can either upload your RFQ, or the system will walk you through the process of creating one electronically. You then confirm your information and send the request. The vendors in the system respond to you directly. RFID Journal receives no commission of any kind for this service. Our aim is simply to help our readers find the technology that meets their needs.
Are there any standards for RFID?
Yes. International standards have been adopted for some very specific applications, such as for tracking animals and for smart cards, which require encryption to keep data secure. Many other standards initiatives are under way. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is working on standards for tracking goods in the supply chain using high-frequency tags (ISO 18000-3) and ultra-high frequency tags (ISO 18000-6). EPCglobal, a joint venture set up to commercialize Electronic Product Code technologies, has its own standards process, which was used to create bar code standards. EPCglobal has said that it intends to submit EPC protocols to ISO so they can become international standards.
Are EPC standards finalized?
The Auto-ID Center developed Class 1 and Class 0 specifications for EPC tags and handed these off to EPCglobal in September 2003. In June 2004, these two specifications completed EPCglobal’s standardization process and became the first EPC “standards.” In December 2004, EPCglobal’s board approved a single second-generation standard that will eventually replace Class 1 and Class 2.
What is EPC Gen 2?
Gen 2 is the shorthand name given to EPCglobal’s second-generation EPC protocol. It was designed to work internationally and has other enhancements such as a dense reader mode of operation, which prevents readers from interfering with one another when many are used in close proximity to one another.
What is the foundation protocol?
The term “foundation protocol” is sometimes used to describe the second-generation EPC air interface protocol, or UHF Gen 2. EPCglobal calls it the foundation protocol because Gen 2 is designed a way that higher-class tags will also talk to readers. These higher-class tags will have more memory, encryption capabilities, the ability to use a battery to broadcast a signal to a reader and the ability to communicate information from temperature and other sensors. The Foundation Protocol is expected to be approved by the end of 2004.
What’s the difference between ISO and EPC?
The Electronic Product Code is a standard created by EPCglobal. Although it was designed to be a global standard for use in many industries, EPC is not an international standard approved by The International Organization for Standardization. EPCglobal, the body responsible for EPC technology, says it plans to submit the EPC Gen 2 protocol to ISO for approval. ISO has created many standards for RFID. These deal with both the air-interface protocol and applications for RFID. EPC deals with more than just how tags and readers communicate. EPCglobal wants to create network standards to govern how EPC data is shared among companies and other organizations.
What is ISO 18000-6?
ISO 18000-6 is a proposed international standard governing the way tags and readers communicate in the UHF spectrum. There are currently two versions, 18000-6A and 18000-6B. It is possible that EPCglobal’s Gen 2 standard could become an international standard and be called ISO 18000-6C, but as of December 2004, the Gen 2 standard did not include an 8-bit application family identifier, which would be required for it to be an ISO 18000-6 standard.
Why is EPC Gen 2 important?
Gen 2 was designed to work internationally and has other enhancements that are significant, but the real benefit of Gen 2 is that it works anywhere in the world and major manufacturers of chips and tags have lined up behind it. That competition will drive up volume and drive down price. The first Gen 2 tags arrived on the market in the third quarter of 2005 and several companies, including Avery Dennison and UPM Rafsec, announced low-priced tags. Lower prices and the ability of tags to work internationally will drive adoption.
EPCglobal and Auto-ID Labs
What is EPCglobal?
EPCglobal is a not-for-profit joint venture set up by the Uniform Code Council, which licensed the EPC technologies developed by the Auto-ID Center, and EAN International, the bar code standards body in Europe. EPCglobal is an umbrella organization overseeing local chapters that will work with companies to encourage the adoption of EPC technologies. EPCglobal will issue EPCs to companies that subscribe to its service.
What is the difference between EPCglobal and EPCglobal US?
EPCglobal is an umbrella organization that oversees local EPCglobal chapters. EPCglobal US is the chapter that will issue EPCs in the United States. It is a subsidiary of the Uniform Code Council. Other chapters of EPCglobal have been set up around the world.
What is the Auto-ID Center?
The Auto-ID Center was set up in 1999 as a not-for-profit consortium to develop a system for using the Internet to identify goods anywhere in the world, using something called the Electronic Product Code (EPC). It was originally supported by the Uniform Code Council, EAN International, Procter & Gamble and Gillette, and was based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Over time, it received funding form large companies who wanted to use RFID to track goods, and who believed an open standard was critical. Other labs were established in England, Switzerland, Japan and China. In October 2003, the center closed its doors and was transitioned into two separate organizations: EPCglobal took over the commercialization of EPC technologies, while Auto-ID Labs continued the research and development role of the Auto-ID Center.
What are the Auto-ID Labs?
The Auto-ID Labs are nonprofit research labs, headquartered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that do primary research into the development of EPC and related technologies. The labs were part of the Auto-ID Center. The name was changed when the Auto-ID Center ceased to exist after October 2003.
What type of research are the Auto-ID Labs doing?
The Auto-ID Labs are focused both on the development of the EPC network technology and applications for the technology. Work is being done to develop standards for sharing data. The labs have also set up special interest groups to research ways of embedding tags in packaging and solving problems reading tags on certain types of products, and to develop standards for using EPC and other technologies to reduce counterfeiting of products.
Is EPC technology just for use on consumer products goods?
The original vision was for EPC technology to be used on all types of products, not just consumer products. Having a single numbering scheme would make it easier to track goods not just within an industry but across industries as well. Goodyear, for instance, sells tires to automakers and to Wal-Mart, and it would be better to use one numbering scheme to track all their tires. But many industries have their own numbering systems, and EPCglobal is now working on a “translation engine”—a software system that would convert EPCs into industry-specific numbers and back again. Many industries are moving toward adopting EPC technology, including pharmaceuticals, defense, electronics and computing.
The Electronic Product Code
What is the Electronic Product Code?
The Electronic Product Code (EPC) was created by the Auto-ID Center as an eventual successor to the bar code. The aim was to create a low-cost method of tracking goods using RFID technology. The benefit of RFID is that it doesn’t require line-of-site, which means goods can be scanned through packaging and without needing people to scan items. EPC tags were designed to identify each item manufactured, as opposed to just the manufacturer and class of products, as bar codes do today.
How does the EPC work?
The EPC is a string of numbers and letters, consisting of a header and three sets of data partitions. The first partition identifies the manufacturer. The second identifies the product type (stock keeping unit) and the third is the serial number unique to the item. By separating the data into partitions, readers can search for items with a particular manufacturer’s code or product code. Readers can also be programmed to search for EPCs with the same manufacturer and product code, but which have unique numbers in a certain sequence. This makes it possible, for example, to quickly find products that might be nearing their expiration date or that need to be recalled.
Why is EPC technology important?
EPC technology could dramatically improve efficiencies within the supply chain. The vision is to create near-perfect supply chain visibility—the ability to track every item anywhere in the supply chain securely and in real time. RFID can dramatically reduce human error. Instead of typing information into a database or scanning the wrong bar code, goods will communicate directly with inventory systems. Readers installed in factories, distribution centers, and storerooms and on store shelves will automatically record the movement of goods from the production line to the consumer.
Will there be just one type of EPC?
No. The Auto-ID Center originally proposed EPCs of 64-, 96- and 128-bits. Eventually, there could be more. The 96-bit number is the one the center believed would be most common. It chose 96 bits as a compromise between the desire to ensure that all objects have a unique EPC and the need to keep the cost of the tag down (the less information on the microchip the cheaper the cost of producing the chip). The 96-bit EPC provides unique identifiers for 268 million companies. Each manufacturer can have 16 million object classes and 68 billion serial numbers in each class, more than enough to cover all products manufactured worldwide for years to come. Since there is no need for that many serial numbers at this time, the center has proposed an interim 64-bit code. The smaller code will help keep the price of the RFID chips down initially (the simpler the chip, the cheaper the tag), while providing more than enough unique EPCs for current needs. The center foresees using a 128-bit code to cover all the items made around the world.
What’s the EPC header for?
The EPC header is used to indicate the format of the EPC code, (i.e. the length of field partitions), and was designed to make the system flexible. For instance, the header tells the reader whether the tag has a 64-bit or a 96-bit EPC. The header also makes it possible to divide the data partitions in different ways, so a manufacturer that makes large amounts of only a few products could shift digits from the object class partition to the serial number partition.
How can a company track items using EPCs?
Companies have to create a network of RFID readers. In a warehouse for example, there could be readers around the doors on a loading dock and on every bay. When a pallet of goods arrives, the reader on the dock door picks up its unique license plate. Computers look up what the product is using the EPC Network. Inventory systems are alerted to its arrival. When the pallet is put in bay A, that reader sends a signal saying item 1-2345-67890 is in bay A.
How do you know what item 1-2345-67890 is?
The EPC by itself tells you no more about a product than a car’s license plate tells you about a car. Computers need a way to associate the EPC with information stored elsewhere about the unique item. To help computer systems find and understand information about a product, the Auto-ID Center developed some infrastructure technologies that would be integrated with the Internet to allow companies to look up information associated with each item in secure databases. For more on this, see the FAQs about the EPCglobal Network.
How do companies use the EPC data to become more efficient and more profitable?
How companies use EPC data and the EPC Network will be up to them, just as it’s up to them to decide how they want to use the Internet. But the EPCglobal is working with industry partners to provide some basic tools that will help them take advantage of the network. VeriSign, for instance, has been awarded a contract to manage the root directory for the Object Name Service. VeriSign and others will host EPC Information Services for companies. And some of the functionality of Savants is being incorporated into commercial RFID middleware. These tools will enable companies to track and trace goods, which should help reduce counterfeiting, and enable many other improvements in supply chain efficiency. For instance, retailers may provide EPC data about stock levels in stores to enable automated replenishment of products.
The EPCglobal Network
How does a computer act on information about a product?
The whole point of automatic identification is to take people out of the loop, to enable computers to gather information and act on it. For that to happen, computers must be able to not just identify a product, but also interpret some basic information about it. To make this possible, the Auto-ID Center started to develop a new computer language called the Physical Markup Language. PML is based on the widely accepted eXtensible Markup Language (XML), which is used to describe common types of data (addresses, dates, invoice numbers and so on) and transactions (purchases, requests for quotes and so on) in a way computers running different proprietary applications can understand. PML files will be stored in the EPC Information Service (once called PML servers). EPC Information Service will reside on computers distributed across the Internet. (The Object Name Service, described above, points computers to data about products stored in the EPC Information Service.) Some information about each product will be stored in a PML file, such as a product’s name and broad category (soft drink, auto part, clothing and so on), when it was made and where, its expiration date, its current location, even its current temperature, if that’s important. PML files will provide information to existing enterprise applications or new yet-to-be developed applications. The PML file could contain instructions for where a pallet should be shipped. It could contain instructions for a point-of-sale display to lower the price of an item when its expiration date approaches. Or it could contain instructions for how long your microwave needs to cook a particular brand of frozen pizza.
How do you avoid having all this data about individual products overload existing networks?
The Auto-ID Center created software technology called Savants to manage and move information in a way that doesn’t overload existing corporate and public networks. Savants use a distributed architecture, meaning the software runs on different computers distributed through an organization, rather than from one central computer. Savants are organized in a hierarchy and act as the nervous system of the new EPC network, managing the flow of information. At the edge of the network, Savants gather data from readers. They pass on only relevant information to existing business applications, such as which products are about to expire. A Savant running at a distribution center might determine when product needs to be reordered from manufacturers, and so on. EPCglobal is phasing out the name “Savants”. Middleware companies have developed commercial products that do what Savants were designed to do.
How do Savants work?
The Auto-ID Center designed Savants to act as the nervous system of the network. Savants were designed to be different from most enterprise software in that it isn’t one overarching application. Instead, Savants were designed as a distributed architecture and the software would be organized in a hierarchy to manage the flow of data. The vision was that there would be Savants running in stores, distribution centers, regional offices, factories, perhaps even on trucks and in cargo planes. Savants at each level would gather, store and act on information and interact with other Savants. This function is being absorbed into different forms of RFID middleware.
Why were Savants needed?
There are tasks that needed to be performed in order for the EPC network to work as envisioned by the Auto-ID Center. At the time, no middleware could handle these tasks. But companies have taken the concept and incorporated many of the tasks envisioned for Savants in their middleware products. Among the tasks are: • Data smoothing: Software at the edge of the network-those attached to readers-will smooth data. Not every tag is read every time, and sometimes a tag is read incorrectly. By using algorithms middleware is able to correct these errors. • Reader coordination: If the signals from two readers overlap, they may read the same tag, producing duplicate EPCs. Software must be used to analyze reads and delete duplicate codes. • Data forwarding: At each level, middleware has to be set up to filter information and pass on only necessary information to an enterprise application. For instance, middleware in a cold storage facility might forward only changes in the temperature of stored items that exceed certain thresholds. • Data storage: Existing databases can’t handle more than a few hundred transactions a second, so another job of the middleware is to maintain a real-time in-memory event database (RIED). In essence, the system will take the EPC data that is generated in real time and store it intelligently, so that other enterprise applications have access to the information, but databases aren’t overloaded. • Task management: Essentially, middleware is customized to manage data and execute commands. For instance, middleware running in a warehouse might be programmed to alert the manager when the number of pallets of a particular product drops below a certain level.
What is the Object Name Service?
The Object Name Service (ONS) is an automated networking service similar to the Domain Name Service (DNS) that points computers to sites on the World Wide Web. When an interrogator reads an RFID tag, the Electronic Product Code is passed to middleware, which, in turn, goes to an ONS on a local network or the Internet to find where information on the product is stored. ONS points the middleware to a server where a file about that product is stored. The middleware retrieves the file (after proper authentication), and the information about the product in the file can be forwarded to a company’s inventory or supply chain applications.
Who will maintain the ONS?
EPCglobal has awarded VeriSign a contract to maintain the root ONS directory. But the Object Name Service will handle many more requests than the Web’s Domain Name Service. Therefore, companies will likely maintain ONS servers locally, which will store information for quick retrieval. So a manufacturer may store ONS data from its current suppliers on its own network, rather than pulling the information off the Web site every time a shipment arrives at the assembly plant. The system will also have built-in redundancies. For example, if a server with information on a certain product crashes, ONS will be able to point the RFID middleware to another server where the same information is stored.
What is Physical Markup Language?
The Electronic Product Code identifies individual products, but all the useful information about the product would be written in a new, standard computer language called the Physical Markup Language (PML). PML is based on the widely accepted eXtensible Markup Language (XML). Because it’s meant to be a universal standard for describing all physical objects, processes and environments, PML will be broad and will cover all industries. It will provide a common method for describing physical objects and will be broadly hierarchical. So, for instance, a can of Coke might be described as a carbonated beverage, which would fall under the subcategory soft drink, which would fall under the broader category food. Not all classifications are so simple, so to ensure that PML has broad acceptance, EPCglobal is relying on work already done by standards bodies, such as the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (Le Syst?me International d’Unit?s – SI) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States.
What types of data will be stored in the PML file?
In addition to product information that doesn’t change (such as material composition), PML will include data that changes constantly (dynamic data) and data that changes over time (temporal data). Dynamic data in a PML file might include the temperature of a shipment of fruit, or vibration levels from a machine. Temporal data changes discretely and intermittently throughout an object’s life. One example is an object’s location. By making all of this information available in a PML file, companies will be able to use information in new and innovative ways. A company could, for instance, set triggers so the price of a product falls as its expiration date approaches. Third party logistics providers could offer service-level contracts indicating that goods will be stored at a certain temperature as they are transported.
Where will all these PLM files be stored?
PML files will be stored in online databases that will be part of something called the EPC Information Service (formerly called a PML server). The EPC Information Service is a distributed system of managing EPC data across many computers connected to the Internet. One element of the service is to manage who has access to different types of company data. So a company might provide full access to some business partners, access to shipping information to its logistics providers and inventory data only to its retail partners. Companies may maintain their own EPC Information Service computers or outsource this to companies such as VeriSign.
Will my company have to replace our entire bar code infrastructure to take advantage of the Electronic Product Code?
EPCglobal is promoting the Electronic Product Code as the next standard for identifying products. It is trying to create a migration path for companies to move from established standards for bar codes to the new EPC. To encourage this evolution, it has adopted the basic structures of the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), an umbrella group under which virtually all existing bar codes fall. It is envisioned that companies will maintain their bar code systems and add new EPC infrastructure.
What can the EPC network do that existing bar code systems can’t do?
Bar codes are a line-of-sight technology. That is, a scanner has to “see” the bar code to read it. That means people usually have to orient the bar code towards a scanner for it to be read. Also, if a bar code label is ripped, soiled or falls off, there is no way to scan the item. Radio frequency identification, by contrast, doesn’t require line of sight. RFID tags can be read as long as they are within range of a reader. And since radio waves pass through plastic, tags can be protected from damage. Because RFID tags can communicate with readers without line of sight in most cases, RFID also has the potential to reduce out of stocks. Studies show that, on average, products are not on the store shelves 7 percent of the time. Every time a customer leaves a store without buying what they came for because it wasn’t on the shelf, the retailer and the manufacturer lose out. RFID has the potential to dramatically reduce out of stocks by providing real-time visibility into what’s on the store shelves. It also has the potential to dramatically reduce theft by alerting store employees to unusual activity at the shelves. It may also reduce employee theft, counterfeiting, administrative errors, and mass recalls. And there are some unique benefits associated with the ability to track individual items. Down the road, RFID tags have the potential to be combined with sensors to monitor the status of the product. Sensors might, for instance, detect that a shipment of milk was left in a warm environment for a period of time. Computer systems could then bring forward the milk’s expiration date to account for the lack of refrigeration. Sensors might also reveal whether food products have been spoiled or tampered with. Once a company has installed the infrastructure to take advantage of tracking products over the EPC network, other capabilities can be added cost effectively.
Intellectual Property Issues
Who owns the intellectual property created by the Auto-ID Center?
The Auto-ID Center was a unique partnership between industry and academia. Strictly speaking, the intellectual property belongs to the universities where the research is being conducted. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the Auto-ID Center started, licensed the core EPC intellectual property to the Uniform Code Council on the condition that it be made available on a royalty free basis to any company that wants to use it.
Does EPCglobal charge fees for the use of EPC technology?
EPCglobal charges membership fees. Members are issued Electronic Product Codes to use on their products. EPCglobal doesn’t charge licensing fees to vendors that want to build RFID tags and readers based on the EPC standards.
Is EPC Gen 2 a royalty-free standard?
EPCglobal says that it is a royalty-free standard because a vendor doesn’t need to use technology patented by anyone to practice the standard. However, the standard is royalty free in only the most narrowest sense. Most experts say that today there is no practical way to build products based on the Gen 2 standard without infringing patents owned by Intermec Technologies, a vendor based in Everett, Wash. Intermec says it will charge royalties of 5 percent and 7 percent.
Privacy and data collection
Will governments be able to use RFID to spy on people?
If companies choose to put RFID tags in clothes and items consumers carry around, such as wallets, and consumers choose not to kill the tags in these items, it might be possible for governments to use RFID tags for surveillance. But they would have to have access to the database of information related to the tags’ EPCs, and it would be easy for individuals to avoid being tracked. RFID readers must emit radio waves to read tags. The signals from a reader can easily be detected and blocked.
In the future, is it possible that a criminal could scan the EPCs on watches, jewelry and other items to choose whom to rob?
It’s not clear whether RFID tags will ever be used on these items. Companies may simply use them in the packaging of these items. People who buy valuable items will also have the option to kill the tag in these items. But if a company did embed a tag in a watch and a consumer chose not to kill the tag, it would be possible to scan the RFID tag on the item from close range (the tag would have to have a very small antenna to be embedded in a watch, which means the read range would be less than a foot). The criminal would have to know that the serial numbers contained on the tags are associated with high-value products.
What information is stored on RFID tags?
The tags most companies are planning to use in the supply chain in the short term and in consumer packaging in the long term will contain only an Electronic Product Code. The EPC will be associated with data in online databases. Some information about the item might be accessible to anyone-such as what the product is-but other information, such as where it was made and when-will be accessible only to those whom the manufacturer wants to make the information available to. So Wal-Mart will not have access to data about products sold by Target and vice versa.
Why are companies so keen to use RFID if it is not to gain more information on consumers?
RFID could dramatically improve efficiency in the supply chain and reduce waste. If it can reduce the times products are not on the shelf when consumers want to buy they, it could also increase sales.
Are there laws governing the use of RFID?
Most countries have not passed laws governing the use of RFID specifically. In many cases, existing privacy laws cover the use of data collected by RFID systems, as well as bar codes and other systems. Some U.S. states have considered enacting new laws that deal with issues particular to RFID, such as the surreptitious scanning of RFID tags by retailers or people with criminal intent.
What kind of data do companies want to collect?
Companies are interested in using RFID in the supply chain. The main goal is to use it to make sure they have products on the shelves when companies want to buy them. It’s envisioned that “smart shelves”—shelves with RFID readers in them—will alert staff when inventory is running low. There is also hope that RFID can be used to reduce theft by alerting staff when there is unusual shelf activity—such as when someone grabs a dozen tubes of lipstick or razors.
What is RFID Journal’s position on RFID and privacy?
Our editorial position is that consumers should be notified when products contain RFID tags and when RFID readers are being used to read tags, such as in a retail store. We believe consumers should have the choice to buy goods without RFID tags or with tags that have been killed, and consumers should be notified about what data is being collected on them and how it should be used. We think this is not only the right thing to do; it is also good business. We believe the key to protecting consumer privacy is education. If consumers understand what RFID is, how it can and can’t be used, the benefits it provides and how it could be abused, they will make intelligent choices about what they are willing to accept, and companies will respond to their concerns or risk losing customers.
Could a criminal build an illegal, high-powered reader and scan all the items in homes to choose which ones to rob?
That’s very unlikely. For a reader to read passive tags through the walls of a home from the street, the power output would have to be so high that the popcorn in the cupboard would start popping. In addition, the criminal would obtain only a string of serial numbers, which might have no meaning unless it were a truly sophisticated criminal with access to EPC databases. And looking in windows would probably be a cheaper and more effective way of figuring out whether there are items in a house worth stealing.
Will RFID enable companies to keep track of what consumers buy?
There are very few items with RFID tags in them today, so it is not clear exactly what information companies will collect. But it’s likely that any information companies collect using RFID will be similar to what they glean today when consumers buy items using a credit card or a loyalty card. It’s envisioned that the packaging of products will have an RFID tag that contains an Electronic Product Code-a unique serial number that identifies the manufacturer, product type and a series of numbers that identifies that unique item. Companies will use this number to track products through the supply chain. It’s important to be able to tell one carton of milk from another in the supply chain because they have different expiry dates. But there is little benefit to knowing which specific items customers by. Companies want to know the types of items people buy, so they can sell those customers other items that match their taste. Companies can already get this information from barcodes.
Can RFID tags be read from satellites?
Passive RFID tags, the kind companies are talking about using one day on consumer products, can’t be read from more than 20 feet or so. Active RFID tags, which use a battery to broadcast a signal and are used on cargo containers and other large assets, could be read from a satellite if there is little RF “noise” (ambient RF energy that causes interference) and the broadcasted signal is powerful enough.
From how far away can a typical RFID tag be read?
The distance from which a tag can be read is called its read range. Read range depends on a number of factors, including the frequency of the radio waves uses for tag-reader communication, the size of the tag antenna, the power output of the reader, and whether the tags have a battery to broadcast a signal or gather energy from a reader and merely reflect a weak signal back to the reader. Battery-powered tags typically have a read range of 300 feet (100 meters). These are the kinds of tags used in toll collection systems. High-frequency tags, which are often used in smart cards, have a read range of three feet or less. UHF tags-the kind used on pallets and cases of goods in the supply chain-have a read range of 20 to 30 feet under ideal conditions. If the tags are attached to products with water or metal, the read range can be significantly less. If the size of the UHF antenna is reduced, that will also dramatically reduce the read range. Increasing the power output could increase the range, but most governments restrict the output of readers so that they don’t interfere with other RF devices, such as cordless phones.
RFID in Consumer Products
Can RFID tags in consumer products be deactivated before the customer leaves the store?
Yes. This is known as the “kill” command. The reader sends a code to the tag that turns the tag off permanently. When RFID systems are fully deployed in stores and most products have RFID tags in their packaging (this won’t happen for at least 10 years), each checkout counter will likely have an RFID reader that can kill the tags. In the mean time, companies will likely place kiosks near the exits of stores, so consumers who wish to can kill the tags. Products will have symbols indicating that the package contains a tag and retailers may remove the tags at the time of checkout if consumers want them removed.
How big are RFID transponders?
RFID transponders range in size from the size of a grain of pepper to the size of a brick. The size depends on whether the tag uses a battery to broadcast a signal or simply reflects a signal back from the reader. The other factor is the size of the antenna. As the antenna gets smaller the read range decreases. Tags that are the size of a grain of pepper have an antenna etched onto the microchip. Because the antenna is so small, the tags can only be read from less than an inch away.
Can tags be reactivated?
EPCglobal, the nonprofit organization that is developing standards for the use of EPC technology, has stipulated that all EPC tags should have a feature that enables them to be rendered permanently inoperably by the kill command. This is to prevent anyone from reactivating a tag and using it to track a person without their knowledge. It’s always possible that a design flaw is discovered which enables someone to reactivate a tag. No such flaw is known to exist at this time.
Can RFID tags be hidden in consumer products?
RFID tags can be read through non-metallic packaging so they can be embedded in products and product packaging. However, it’s unlikely that companies would try to hide tags in their products, since these would be easy to discover. A consumer could use a reader to locate the tag.
Are there any consumer benefits to RFID? Or do all the benefits go to the companies that use it?
There are many consumer benefits. Greater efficiency in the supply chain will reduce costs and improve efficiencies. Companies will pass some of these savings on to consumers to try to gain market share from less efficient competitors. RFID could be used by retailers to expedite returns and by manufacturers to manage warrantee claims and improve after-sales support of items such as computers and DVD players. RFID could also reduce the counterfeiting of pharmaceutical drugs and insure the integrity of products purchased by consumers. And RFID could be used to secure the food supply and prevent terrorists from sneaking weapons of mass destruction into a country through shipping containers.
Can RFID be embedded in money?
It’s possible but so far, no country has used RFID tags in this way. Hitachi, the Japanese high-technology company, has developed a very tiny RFID chip, called the mu-chip, designed to help governments prevent the counterfeiting of passports, securities and other documents. There have been reports that the European Union and Japan are considering embedding these chips in large bills, but officials of the EU Bank and the Bank of Japan told RFID Journal that they had no plans to use RFID in bills as of mid-2004. Even if it is technically possible, it’s not clear that the benefits would outweigh the huge costs of the infrastructure needed to make RFID an effective anti-counterfeiting tool. Also, there would likely be strong opposition from privacy advocates (as well as companies that do business mostly in cash).
Can RFID tags be sewn into clothing?
Yes. A number of companies make RFID tags encased in protective plastic. These tags are designed for use in the laundry and uniform rental business. The tags used are typically 13.56 MHz tags, which have a read range of less than 3 feet (1 meter). Today, there is no way to embed a tag that is undetectable to the consumer into clothes. Companies that are testing RFID systems for tracking clothes in the supply chain are putting the RFID transponder on a hangtag that the consumer cuts off before wearing the item.
Other RFID Issues
Are there any health risks associated with RFID and radio waves?
RFID uses the low-end of the electromagnetic spectrum. The waves coming from readers are not dangerous.
Will RFID lead to massive layoffs of workers?
RFID technology is a laborsaving technology, so it’s likely that some tasks will be automated through the use of RFID. Fewer workers will be needed to scan bar codes. But the transition from bar codes to RFID could take a decade or more, so it is unlikely that RFID will lead to wide-scale displacement of workers. The technology will likely create new jobs, just as Internet technologies creating new jobs, from Web developers to warehouse workers managing inventory for online stores such as Amazon.com. The jobs that will be affected by RFID are those that involve scanning bar codes. Most of those jobs also have other components, such as moving products or restocking shelves. Those jobs will not go away because of RFID.
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