RFID - the smart revolution
What do the European Championships 2012, a freezer display cabinet at a real Future Store and the Vatican Library have in common? It is the use of RFID. No bigger than a grain of rice, RFID chips are very versatile in their use. Vilified by some as”Big Brother“, others see RFID as a brilliant technology, even though this technology is by no means new.
In the 70s, RFID technology already found its way into commercial use: at first in the area of theft protection and animal identification; in the 90s, the introduction of a new system made it possible to make RFID chips slimmer. This made the chips more cost effective and multiplied their areas of application, e.g. for access control, as labels in libraries or as an electronic vehicle immobilization system. The contactless identification opened up a number of possibilities that are particularly used in the field of logistics.
RFID and the alternatives
Just like the barcode, radio frequency identification or RFID in short, is an automatic identification system. What is new here is the contactless identification and location of people and objects. The RFID chips work based on radio waves. The system itself is simple as can be and consists of two parts: the reader and the transponder, which is located as a tag on the product and object, respectively, itself.
RFID technology is not a chip that has to be directly read, but rather a chip that sends its information on call. The system knows active and passive transponders, in which the distance between transponder and reader can vary between 10 cm and several hundred meters, depending on whether this is an active or passive system and how the ambient conditions are.
Active means that the transponder comes with its own power supply and is able to “actively” send. The transponder signal is correspondingly stronger and can thus be received over much greater distances, in extreme cases up to 1-2 km. In addition, the penetration of material is many times higher. Once measured readings can be stored and transmitted during the next radio contact. Even though passive transponders are cheaper to purchase, they have a shorter operating range, because they do not have their own power source.
What’s more, transponders are not as susceptible compared to barcodes. Irrespective of their position, they show no interference due to dirty conditions and still work if they are slightly damaged.
However, the radio chips are not always the first choice. The barcode is a tried and tested, widespread global technology. That is why the degree of standardization is high. Barcodes are readable all over the world and are far cheaper than RFID chips.
Optimization using RFID technology
Whereas RFID was still a pilot project in 2005 for most retailers, in 2008 according to a survey, conducted by the RFID Forum together with the FTK Research Institute for Telecommunications (“Forschungsinstitut für Telekommunikation”), 37% of retailers interviewed use RFID. The application areas of the surveyed companies range from protection against plagiarism to tracking containers and all the way to cafeteria invoicing.
The results show that although small and medium-sized companies have a large interest in the advantages of RFID (61.9 percent compared to 54.2 percent in big companies), they do not implement them. Whereas over 40 percent of interviewed big companies already work with RFID, so far the technology is only used in just under 20 percent of all small and medium-sized businesses. Approximately 40 percent of interviewed small and medium-sized companies do not plan a RFID introduction; this portion is only about 20 percent for large companies.
As one of the first companies in Germany and Europe, the Metro Group relies on RFID technology in its entire value added chain. In the clothing industry, in 2009 Gerry Weber chose RFID after an extended testing phase and was so successful, that by now all of its stores at home and abroad have implemented this solution. More than 26 million of the clothing articles produced annually are equipped with RFID technology since January 2011.
Cooling - knowing - planning
According to Fraunhofer, more than 50% of fresh food does not get to the end consumer, because it spoils during transport. With the new RFID chips, temperature or effects of light can be better controlled. Through more efficient utilization methods, they optimize the transport of fresh produce or temperature-sensitive foods. Chips equipped with sensor technology, so-called smart tags, make it possible.
With these smart tags, data on manufacturer and minimum shelf life, transport and production can be contactless read out and make continuous control possible this way. New developments aim to also store data on ingredients. This way, data can also be connected to specific diet programs. Researchers at the Fraunhofer FIT do pioneering work with the ”Magic Ring“, which reacts with vibration to incompatible foods.
In the refrigerated display cases at the real Future Store in Tönisvorst, the customer finds meat-packaging trays with RFID tags. Every 10 minutes, the inventory is recorded and stored by RFID readers. If a product falls below the minimum stock level or passes the expiration date, it shows up on the monitor at the butcher shop and the staff can react accordingly and add inventory or remove it.
Now there is a new procedure from England, which does not apply RFID tags on the outside of the items, but embeds edible, polymer-based chips into foods. The “NutriSmart” system, developed by British researchers at the Royal College of Art in London, is based on the idea that RFID wafers directly added in the food help to better monitor the food supply chain and further automate shopping at the supermarket. The foods with the chips are placed in front of a special reader and the user finds out all the basics about the relative product, including information on how much you should eat of it. What benefit this could have for the consumer or the retailer is more than questionable.
In food production, continuous tracking and permanent monitoring are also gaining more and more importance. As a result, companies also successfully use RFID chips in this area, to monitor the maturation of cheese wheels for instance. Cheese runs through different maturation cycles at different temperatures and air moisture, which are fully automatically read via RFID. The cheese is placed on a cart equipped with a transponder and based on the day receives its own identification number. In doing so, the system can clearly identify every cart and it can fully automatically be transported into the individual sweating and maturation rooms or to the packaging area. RFID readers at the entrances additionally check the length of stay of the cheese wheel in the room. Thanks to RFID technology, the production chain can be continuously tracked and makes accurate capacity utilization in production possible.
Wish and Reality
Despite the positive tests with RFID systems, comprehensive use has not caught on so far. On the one hand, this is still due to high costs. According to Emisllari of the Fraunhofer Institute, a chip costs between 5-8 cents.
Yet another reason is also found in the lack of standardization. ”The electronic product code (EPC) already provides a global mutually exclusive set of digits, which helps in clearly identifying every product“, says Dr. Wolfram from the Metro Group. It is not just retail, but also the packaging industry that need to take action. So-called isolated solutions are not very promising.
What’s more, there can be readout problems, if the exact position of the transponder cannot be determined due to readout without visibility. Existing data can be overwritten on rewritable RFID tags. The combination of transponders, tags, reader and other components is oftentimes significantly more complex than at first assumed. Not every transponder can do everything. The choice therefore needs to be application-specific.
It should also be warranted, that stored data or RFID-equipped goods like e.g. articles of clothing, could not be read out by unauthorized persons after the customer leaves the store, since RFID chips cannot only identify the merchandise, but also the consumer. Consumer advocacy groups like CASPIAN and FoeBuD therefore demand new privacy policies that stop a potential readout of the chips at the door of the store.
RFID technology is without a doubt a system of the future that saves time and costs if it is used properly. As the use in the Future Store also demonstrates, RFID technology offers a new world with many possibilities and advantages. As long as costs are disproportionate to savings however, RFID technology –just like the barcode- will take longer to establish itself on the market.
Ingrid Spicker, InterMopro.de