RFID tracking pillar page

A complete guide to the RFID tracking system

You’ve probably heard of RFID before and wondered what it means. Short for Radio Frequency Identification, RFID is a smart tracking solution used in many industries, such as inventory management, logistics or retail.

While this technology might sound complicated, we assure you that it’s simpler than it sounds. Through antennas, RFID readers communicate with tags that are attached to specific objects, such as cameras, cables, clothes, even shipping containers, allowing you to identify them.

Think of a situation where you deal with lots of items that have to be tracked. If these items have RFID tags attached to them, you will be able to scan them using a reader without actually being in line-of-sight.

However, there is more to RFID than that. Depending on the type of tag, as well as frequencies and reading ranges, there are many different scenarios within different industries for this technology. This means that RFID is very configurable, and it might be the inventory management solution you’ve been looking for.

In this article, we’ll be sharing more about industry-specific cases for this technology, answer privacy concerns, as well as go through advantages and disadvantages. For example, based on our research, RFID can save up to 90% of your time while scanning items. But, is it worth considering its substantial investment costs? Find out more about it in the coming sections.

 

Already interested in investing in RFID? We compiled lots of insights on how to successfully implement RFID in the AV industry into a downloadable report. Make sure to grab a copy for yourself.

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1.  What is RFID?
2.  The ecosystem behind the technology
3.  What are tags?
4.  Types of system frequencies
5.  Business use cases
6.  RFID vs. barcodes and QR codes
7.  Privacy concerns
8.  Advantages of the technology
9.  Disadvantages of the technology
10.  Real-world case study
11.  Investment costs
12.  Frequently asked questions

 

1. What is RFID?

RFID is a type of wireless communication technology used to identify objects within a specified radius, specifically useful for industries that need tracking solutions for their inventory levels (such as cargo logistics or equipment rental). Think of RFID as an upgraded and smarter version of scanning barcodes or QR codes.

Within the electromagnetic spectrum, RFID transmits radio waves and microwaves through antennas. These waves are called ‘radio frequency’, which is where RFID also gets its name. 

However, radio frequency only allows transmission of information. The last element in the name of RFID, identification, happens through electromagnetic coupling. When the electromagnetic field in a circuit connects, or induces voltage, in another circuit, a phenomenon called electromagnetic coupling happens. This is how the RFID ecosystem is created.

Example: Imagine all the tags that you see attached to clothes in a store. Did you know that they all have RFID capabilities? If their circuits get in contact with the circuits inside the gates at the exit, electromagnetic coupling will happen.

This is a type of simple and continuous coupling, that has been around us for decades already. However, there are more advanced RFID ecosystems nowadays, capable of identifying larger volumes of data and updating your system with valuable information.

 

 

2. The ecosystem behind the technology

Now, what is an RFID ecosystem? It’s pretty simple. There are 4 components that make up the whole ecosystem: an antenna, a transceiver, a transponder and a database.

Basic RFID system

The antenna and the transceiver are often working together, even combined under one entity, such as an RFID reader. The reader is the main institution that connects the transponder and the database. They come in many shapes and sizes, but most often can be categorized as static or mobile devices.

 

  1. An example of a static reader can be a conveyor belt with RFID capabilities. This solution is optimal for large warehouses that often deal with consistent lines of supply. Think of a large retailer warehouse that must always keep high levels of the same stock in their connected retail stores. It would be easier to have an automated and fixed tracking system using RFID, to ensure efficient and quick practices.
  2. On the other hand, mobile readers perform best in volatile environments, when different types of inventory are required on a daily basis. Think of the event rental industry. In one day, you could cater to two different events that need different types of equipment. It would be easier to pack equipment up manually and scan everything using the RFID reader.

 

Transponders are another important element of the RFID ecosystem. They are also called tags or chips. They have different shapes and sizes, but typically are smaller, making it easy to attach to inventory pieces.

The final element of the RFID ecosystem is the database. When connected to existing data (such as equipment serial numbers in the inventory), the reader will automatically detect existing inventory. This means that RFID transponders (tags) have to be digitally connected to existing inventory in the database for the RFID system to be optimal, not just physically attached to them.

 

 

3. What are tags?

As mentioned above, RFID tags come in different shapes and sizes. However, they all contain the same base components: an integrated circuit and an antenna. Tags can typically be classified into two categories: active tags and passive tags.

RFID Metal Tags
Active RFID Tags Passive RFID Tags
Have their own power source and continuously transmit their own signals to readers No power source. The reader’s antenna transmits electromagnetic waves that power the antenna of the passive tag
Long read range Short read range
More expensive Less expensive
Typically used to track important mobile items, expensive equipment, vehicles etc. Typically attached to inventory inside the warehouse

A simple form of passive RFID tags are smart labels. They are thin labels that can be printed in special devices that also have a circuit and antenna embedded in them. Since most of the time they contain adhesive, you can easily attach them to any equipment in a short amount of time. However, this comes with disadvantages as well, as they have a very short read range, as well as lifespan.

 

 

4. Types of system frequencies

Frequencies determine the capabilities of the RFID system, such as the read range. There are different types of systems and frequencies that can be applied in different business spectrums. It’s important to note that they also vary by region to comply with respective regulations. 

There are generally four types of frequency ranges: low frequency, high frequency, ultra high frequency and extremely high (or microwave) frequency. The smaller the frequency range, the lower the scanning range of the reader will become as well. For example, using a low frequency system, tags will only get detected from up to one or two meters away (up to 6 feet).

 

RFID System Frequencies

 

  1. Low frequency RFID systems are typically used to track high levels of stock in the warehouse. They range from 30 KHz, all the way up to 500 KHz. Their most typical frequencies range from 125 KHz to 135 KHz (depending on the region). The reading range is also typically within centimeters, all the way up to a meter or two from the subject (inches, up to 6 feet).
  2. High frequency RFID systems are the most common systems, since they are the industry standard for NFC Global Protocols. They range from 3 MHz, all the way up to 30 MHz, with the most common frequency being 13.56 MHz. The standard reading range is a bit better than low frequency systems, being able to scan up to a couple more meters (up to 15 feet).
  3. Ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID systems are expensive and generally used to track more important items. They range from 300 MHz to 3 GHz, with the most common frequency being 433 MHz. The reading range can get up to more than 7 to 8 meters (25 feet).
  4. Lastly, extremely high frequency RFID systems, or microwave RFID systems, are the most expensive and best performance option. They typically range from 30 GHz and can even reach frequencies up to 300 GHz. These are the types of systems that are used on cargo containers, for example. The range can get up to 10 or more meters (30+ feet).

 

 

5. Business use cases

Now that we know what RFID is, as well as types of tags and frequency systems, let’s dive in and see in which industries this technology can be applied. From inventory tracking, all the way to livestock management, there are many possibilities, to name a few:

Asset management & tracking: By adding tags to a multitude of inventory items, companies can always monitor their location and movement in the chain, as well as identify what items are lost. RFID asset tracking systems are among the most popular use cases.

Supply chain management: This takes inventory management & tracking to the next level, as it involves several stages of the supply chain. RFID enables companies to track at which supply stage their inventory is, so that they can plan accordingly using real-time data.

Cargo logistics: A sub-branch of the supply chain, and another popular use case. With advanced UHF / microwave RFID systems, containers can be easily tracked in port facilities, terminals or other types of hubs, where thousands of containers are lined up side-by-side.

Animal tracking: This includes pets that can have RFID tags in their collars, as well as livestock management for large herds of cattle, sheep etc.

Personal identification documentation: Yes, it is true that modern-day passports contain RFID chips. Every time we travel through borders, border officers have special devices that track and register personal data such as the passport number, date of birth and the expiration date of the document.

Retail industry: RFID is prominently used in the clothing industry. All the tags that you see on clothes have RFID capabilities, and the scanning systems at store entrances act as static readers.

Healthcare industry: Believe it or not, some healthcare institutions use RFID tags on patients and staff to verify information, reduce waiting times, as well as locate patients that should come back to their unit. This technology is also used on important surgical tools, to ensure that they are always available for surgeries.

 

 

6. RFID vs. barcodes and QR codes

Barcodes and QR codes are traditional methods of scanning that are still being widely used today. While the concept behind these tracking methods are similar, RFID is slightly different. Here are some of the differences between the three:

 

RFID tags Barcodes & QR codes
Physical items containing an integrated circuit and an antenna Printed, digital
Often times protected by durable plastic coating If printed, can wear and tear after multiple uses in time
No need to be in line-of-sight to scan items Line-of-sight to scan items required
Depending on the type of tag, items can get scanned from a considerable distance Can only be scanned in close proximity
Can read multiple tags at the same time Can only read one code per scan
Need to be powered by internal power source or by contact with RFID reader Does not require power (unless being shown in a digital format)
Require investment in hardware (both readers and tags) Small investments needed; if in digital version, it can be free

 

 

RFID Tags versus Barcodes versus QR codes

 

Of course, there are many more minor differences, but these are the main ones. Depending on the needs of your organization, both solutions can be effective. For companies with smaller inventories, cheap barcodes or QR codes and manual labor can do the trick. However, if your organization deals with inventories, you should consider looking into RFID.

 

 

7. Privacy concerns

Over time, various privacy and security concerns have risen. One of the biggest concerns is that anyone with a capable RFID reader can read your RFID tags, if they are in proximity (for example, outside the warehouse). This can be done even without your knowledge and awareness.

However, as mentioned before, an important element of the RFID ecosystem is the database. Yes, some tags have unique serial numbers that can be read by any reader. But if the reader is not connected with the database where their information is stored, that information will be useless. Furthermore, since most RFID tags do not have computing power, it will be impossible for a perpetrator to decode encrypted information.

At the same time, tags must be compatible with the reader. Most times, RFID readers are built specifically to accommodate a specific category of tags. For example, low frequency band readers can only read low frequency tags.

To avoid any potential breach in the security of your tags, make sure that the assigned area in your warehouse is protected, and placed out-of-reach from the outside.

 

Lastly, there are also privacy issues concerning RFID chips in documents such as electronic passports. Typically, passport chips have basic control access capabilities, meaning that they have computing power to decode encrypted information, such as personal information about the passport holder.

However, this data is only readable through capable border control readers. Border control officers use the reader not only to confirm the identity of the passport holder, but also the validity of the passport itself.

 

 

8. Advantages of the technology

Let’s take a look at how you can improve your processes using this technology and what the benefits of RFID are. Among many advantages of RFID tracking, these are some benefits that could greatly improve your warehouse processes:

Reduced time spent tracking items: RFID tracking saves you a lot of time. RFID can automatically scan everything within a specified radius without the need to be in line-of-sight. And it will also do this in a manner of seconds. Multiply that with the number of projects going on, and hours of your time can be saved every week.

Reduced operational costs: Without RFID tracking, companies typically have to rely on manual labor, which represent significant fixed costs. With RFID systems in place, depending on the situation and project, you won’t have to rely on manual labor, leaving more time to your workers to work on tasks that require more specialized skills, thus increasing overall cost-effectiveness.

Increased asset visibility and traceability: This advantage is crucial for the industries that deal with large volumes of stock (e.g. cargo logistics, shipping, event management etc.). For these industries, it is of utmost importance to always know where your items are, as well as to understand their movement within the operational chain.

Improved experience dealing with lost items: Last but not least, there are times when items get lost. From simple human errors, to bottlenecks, it is normal for most industries that deal with large volumes of stock. While RFID tracking cannot magically make your items reappear, it does help you understand which items are lost, as well as at what point in the operational chain they were lost (through its visibility and traceability capabilities).

 

RFID Scanner

 

 

9. Disadvantages of the technology

Now, RFID is an exciting technology that’s meant to improve our lives. However, let’s not forget it’s still relatively new for most industries, meaning that it may take some time to be improved. Here are some of the drawbacks that we encountered so far:

Density of tags in the warehouse may confuse the reader: Depending on the performance of the reader and the tags, there are situations when readers can get confused if there are too many tags around. We recommend setting up a special scanning zone in your warehouse, to avoid accidentally scanning unneeded items. Getting a reader that only scans items one by one could also help solve this problem.

Using more than one reader at the same time can confuse the system: This is especially true for companies that deal with considerable levels of stock. If you want to speed up your processes and use two or more readers at the same time, make sure to set up anti-collision rules, so that only a specified amount of tags could transmit signals to their assigned reader.

Certain materials can block the signal: While most materials do not interfere with the signals, there are certain situations where signals can get disrupted. For example, frequencies are absorbed by liquids, meaning that they won’t reflect signals back. Metals are also not recommended, since their nature can sometimes act as antennas that reflect the signals in another direction. To avoid possible RFID blockages, make sure to avoid attaching tags to / close to these materials.

Implementation investment is high: Lastly, it’s true that RFID technology requires significant implementation investments. Since the technology is still relatively new for the open market, it’s still expensive. For a warehouse with thousands of items, expect an investment in the tens of thousands of dollars. A decent RFID reader alone can get up to 3 thousand dollars.

 

 

10. Real-world case study

Finally, it’s time to put RFID into practice and see how it actually works. On paper, it presents a lot of advantages, as well as some drawbacks. However, it’s always important to see it for yourself. We conducted an interview with one of our customers, MHB AV, that successfully implemented RFID in their daily operations.

MHB AV knows the struggle of keeping track of inventory. Having operated for more than 10 years in the event industry in and around the Netherlands, quiet and relaxing days are a rare occurrence.

For MHB, keeping track of loose and bulk items is often a challenge. After the company grew and got involved in multiple projects on a weekly basis, keeping track of hundreds of cables became an almost impossible task. To overcome this challenge, the company decided to implement RFID, in aid to their traditional methods of scanning.

After successfully implementing RFID in their daily operations, MHB saw an impressive improvement in their time spent scanning equipment (an impressive 91,6% decrease in time spent scanning), as well as in finding lost items from previous projects.

 

RFID Case Study Quote

 

 

11. Investment costs

There is more RFID content coming your way, including a detailed article on investment opportunities and potential ROI. However, until then, here are some examples of possible investment costs for a medium-sized business. Let’s take a hypothetical situation where you need 3 readers for 10.000 items (one tag per item). Let’s not forget about additional costs as well.

 

RFID Investment Costs

 

Already interested in investing in this technology? Feel free to visit our secondary domain, Geartracking.com, where you can browse RFID tracking products.


 

At Rentman, we understand the challenges posed by dealing with inventory and maintaining a 360° degree overview. Rentman is a resource management and planning software for the AV & event, rental and media industries. We help companies manage their daily operations and improve their workflows, so they can deliver better productions and increase their profits.

Do you want to see more insights from the industry or want to learn more about RFID technology? Make sure to follow us on LinkedIn to always stay up-to-date with our latest developments and studies.

FAQ

Frequently asked questions

  • What is RFID tracking?
    Short of Radio Frequency Identification, RFID is a type of wireless tracking solution that is used to identify objects within a specified radius, without having to be in line-of-sight.
  • What does RIFD consist of?
    RFID cosists in a reader (which has an antenna and a transceiver) that receives data from a transponder (a tag or chip) and connects it with an existing database.
  • How do RFID tags work?
    When you use an RFID reader, it transmits signals to tags (or chips), which send back confirmation waves that are then translated into data.
  • Does RFID require power?
    RFID readers require power to operate. However, there are two types of tags. Active tags require their own power source to transmit signals, whereas passive tags don't, as they receive power from the reader's antenna.
  • How far away can RFID be detected?
    The smaller the frequency range of the RFID system, the lower the scanning range as well. For example, low frequency tags can only get detected from up to one or two meters away (up to 6 feet).
  • Does RFID work in all industries?
    RFID has no limits when it comes to its usability. However, considering that it's a technology that requires large investments, it would be worth adopting only by industries where large volumes of stock are handled.
  • Can RFID readers read through walls?
    Highly capable readers can easily read through dividing walls between rooms. However, with concrete walls, such as the walls protecting the warehouse from the outside, most RFID readers won’t be able to do the job.
  • Do magnets block RFID?
    Magnets do not block radio signals sent from tags, and they do not even interfere with them, since they do not use magnetic based memory.
  • What can block the signal of RFID?
    Liquids, because it absorbs frequencies, and metals, because it can reflect signals in the opposite direction.
  • Is RFID expensive?
    RFID tracking is significantly more expensive than traditional methods of tracking, such as QR codes and barcodes. Expect to spend up to 10 times more on this technology.

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