RFID Gears Up for the Real World
Editor / Provider: a&s International | Updated: 12/27/2007 | Article type: Tech Corner
Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology may not be new, but it has not garnered widespread adoption until recent years. With varying standards and higher costs compared to previous technologies, RFID solutions are now mature enough to be a viable alternative. A&S International takes a look at how the technology has matured, what demand there is for it and some futuristic applications that are poised to become commonplace.
Securing assets can be a tough job, especially when they cannot be found. How does one go about securing high-value items, such as cameras in a stock room, and making sure they can be found again? Does an employee open every box to check their contents? While hunting down items can be a nightmare, radio frequency identification (RFID) promises to make it much easier. The technology offers a tantalizing solutionjust fire up a reader and have all stocked items report to the reader what they are and where they are. Hurdles, however, remain. When not if it comes to pass, RFID will streamline processes to ensure security in a variety of applications.
Global Demand Heating Up
The RFID market is expected to enjoy strong growth in the next several years. All RFID product markets are predicted to have a 27 to 30 percent compound annual growth rate, according to Frost & Sullivan. One product marketcontactless smart cardsearned US$408.9 million in global market revenues for 2005, which is estimated to reach $1,636.2 million in 2011. With access control solutions becoming more sophisticated, RFID-enabled smart cards are ready for widespread adoption in multiple vertical markets.
¨Quite a number of industries use RFID,〃 said Priyanka Gouthaman, Program Manager for RFID at Frost & Sullivan. ¨Ten, 20 years before, it was jus t the automotive and defense/military sectors, but interest in the technology has dramatically increased. Consumer vertical markets are looking at it. Retail, healthcare, automotive, pharmaceutical, air space, transportation, library, legal, hospitalityyou name it, they use RFID in some form or another.〃
North American adoption of RFID technologies make up a significant portion of the global RFID market. Market revenue for 2013 is estimated to reach $487 million for passive tags, $242 million for passive readers and $121 million for middleware, or software used to connect several programs. With increased use of RFID in some noted verticals, like Wal-Mart for retail and the U.S. Department of Defense for military use , the American market for RFID security solutions is looking optimistic.
¨There has been a lot of interest since Wal -Mart mandated RFID use in 2004 and 2005,〃 Gouthaman said. The retailer's intention to have all suppliers using RFID tags by 2004 or 2005, however, was a little unrealistic. ¨The market did not take off as expected, primarily because only large retailers got immediate benefits. Suppliers were just doing it to maintain a relationship with Wal-Mart. We are seeing, however, change in 2007, with an emphasis on return on investment. Consumers are talking a lot more about ROI on enterprise systemsdriving an internal benefit is a focus.〃
Vendors also feel confident that RFID will be adopted more widely, as some issues are over come. ¨The largest hurdles we have seen are cos t and integrat ion,〃 said Tony D'Onofrio, Vice President of Marketing for Sensormatic, a division of Tyco International. ¨The information that RFID can provide is extensive and to make productive use of that information is not a minor task. Companies that see the benefit of the additional information, have a strong IT infrastructure and have been willing to accept change in their processes have been quicker in embracing the technology.〃
Software integration to capture RFID data and close inventory loops with customer enterpr ise management systems is a large endeavor. ¨ Introduction of RFID,〃 said D'Onofrio, ¨demands infrastructure and process change and improvement. That investment in time and money are, of course, both sensitive issues."
That said, RFID reader and tag costs continue to decline. Add to that item-level RFID technology and D'Onofrio sees a clear path for proliferation of RFID into the item level retail space. Item level tagging refers to using a tag to identify every item inventoried, rather than tagging items as a group, such as a pallet loaded with items. As item level tagging requires a tag for each item, it is more expensive than using a single tag for a group of items.
Increased adoption comes with industry standards, which is seen in the second generation (Gen 2) standards for EPCglobal, which is recognized as a benchmark-setting body.
Frost and Sullivan predicted prices falling for RFID. ¨Right now, the prices have dropped dramatically,〃 Gouthaman said. ¨In terms of tags, I don't see it going down for another one or two years. Readers have dropped dramatically. You're able to have readers at really low prices today, starting from $500 or $1,000.〃
RFID is fairly simple hardware, consisting of an integrated circuit ( IC) connec ted to an antenna , forming a tag. Information stored on the IC chip, usual ly a ser ial number or more complex data, is then broadcast using radio waves to an RFID interrogator or reader. The information can be broadcast by the tag reflecting radio waves from a reader, using no power of its own, to be a passive tag. Or if the radio waves need to go further, the tag can use power to broadcast its signal to a reader, making the tag active.
range of frequencies have been approved, with higher frequencies closely regulated for interference. High frequency tags are popular, such as the ISO 14443 band at 13.56 MHz, which is used for smart cards and e-passports under International Civil Aviation Organization regulations. (See the box for more information on radio wave frequencies and applications.) A global standard is expected to form under the EPCglobal framework, which has received support from RFID distributors and government bodies.
RFID trumps the failings of other technologies. For Global Positioning Systems (GPS), satellite frequency is unnecessary for everyday transactions like subway cards, access control and individual tagging in transport. While some applications require GPS, more mundane uses do not require the long-distance range.
Another technology that gets serious competition from RFID is barcode technology. ¨Probably the most frequently compared technology to RFID is the barcode,〃 D'Onofrio said. ¨RFID has major advantages over barcode technology. RFID does not require line of sight, has read ranges far surpas s ing barcode scanning devices, can process multiple items nearly simul taneously and a RFID tag stores unique information about each individual item it is applied to. In this manner, not only does RFID address barcode shortcomings, but also unique data for each individual item contained on an RFID tag allows aspects of inventory control to be realized. This is not achievable with barcode technology.〃
By eliminating line of sight, RFID tags overcome the shortcomings of printed barcodes, which are easily rendered unreadable if they are smudged or torn. While barcodes can be printed practically for free, RFID tags offer tangible information which can pay back dividends. ¨You can also reduce cost by eliminating the need to have a member of the staff to point the reader to scan the item,〃 Gouthamans aid. ¨Also, an advantage is your tracking is completely automatedyou have a real-time look at your inventory.
The encryption capabilities of RFID tags give them an edge over barcodes. ¨Other advantages can include read-write advantages into the setags ,〃Gouthaman said. ¨Whereas if you look at a barcode, once the information is printed, it stays that way. Some RFID (solutions) can update this information as it moves around.〃
RFID technology offers some unique advantages over previous solutions , allowing for added security. While Gouthaman emphasized that RFID does not replace barcodes or GPS, it is a useful complement to existing technology for a safer, better-rounded solution. Bottom line advantages, such as freeing up staff to complete other duties rather than scan each item by barcode, also add up to make RFID a bonus for complete security solutions.
As RFID allows for flexible usage, applications run the gamut. While not all RFID applications integrate security, they offer higher visibility and better reporting, ensuring items are clearly identified. In high-profile applications , such as military transport, tracking items can become a matter of national security.
Taking Stock of Logistics
The need to secure national military supplies is evident, with the U.S. Department of Defense using active tags for more than 15 years, reducing costs and improving supply chain visibility. Individual tags for such shipments, rather than pallet tags, are more expensive, but the costs are justified when shipping high-value items.
Other uses of RFID for tracking are less dramatic, but equally important to secure consumer goods. Retail is poised to adopt RFID widely, as reader prices are expected to drop substantially by late 2007, as volumes are increasing, said a spokesperson at Robert W. Baird & Co. Tag pricing, however, will remain flat.
One example of a retail application for RFID is Tyco's electronic article surveillance ( EAS ) individua tagging solution. ¨Our solut ion enables a customer to cost effectively deploy RFID read points for item level visibility in their retail store,〃 D'Onofrio said. ¨Item level visibility has manifested itself in 'smart shelf ' applications among other components, but our unique design goes beyond the smart shelf by enabling a highly scalable and easily deployable solution for a wide variety of item level retail applications requiring a large number of read points.〃
The global security provider entered the retail sector by acquiring Sensormatica pioneer of radio shrink age detection- - and ADT Security Services, which offers intrusion and fire alarms, along with video surveillance. ¨At this point, item-level RFID's main use is to provide item visibility that solves customer issues such as misplaced items, stock outs, sales item searches and item shelf time,〃 D'Onofrio said. ¨This can help reduce shrinkage, but anti-theft tags are still the mainline defense against shrinkage.〃
Along with reducing shrink, labor payrolls can be decreased, thanks to RFID's time-saving advantages, making RFID a secure technology worth investing in. ¨RFID makes inventory much more transparent and that transparency much more granular,〃 D'Onofrio said, referring to accuracy in identification, such as check ing for what items are in stock. ¨ This can save extraordinary amounts of time and errors compared with counting an dmanaging inventory manually. It can help management understand in real- or near-real-time what's selling where and when, to prevent stock outs and to optimize store and shelf-level, merchandizing.〃
Setting Store by RFID
Individualized item tagging, similar to Tyco's solution, is already rolled out in retail. At least two high-end fashion retailers have adopted RFID solutions to track their valuable merchandise and improve the shopping experience. While there are obvious security concerns, such as theft, RFID has been adapted for convenience and to streamline customer service as well. At two Mi-Tu stores in Hong Kong, shoppers can select clothing and see the rest of the store's inventory on screens located in the dressing rooms.
The first Mi-Tu store was outfitted in Nov. 2006, with EPC Gen 2 tags at tached to al l garment s. Once shoppers select their items of clothing to try on, RFID readers located in the fitting rooms scan the tags and note if the items are available in different colors or sizes. The screen also lists other items in the store that match, sending an alert to the sales person if someone in the dressing room wants to try on a specific garment. If shoppers have a customer loyalty card, clothing preferences can be stored with buyer history, allowing the store to offer customized choices for them the next time they visit a Mi-Tu store.
The pilot, using tags and readers from Schmidt Electronics, has largely been a success. According to an RFID Journal article, one issue that came up was privacy, as store staff had to explain to baffled shoppers how they knew what clothes were being tried on without seeing them. However, greater awareness of RFID and how it works prevented the public outcry over Prada's rollout of RFID at its New York store in 2001. Prada used RFID for inventory and loyalty cards also, adding multimedia like catwalk clips of the items when scanned. The use of RFID to secure merchandise, while also providing helpful customer data, makes it widely used for asset tracking.
Getting Smart with RFID
Another market for widespread RFID technology is smart cards. With low and high frequency solutions available, flexible r ange s and encryption options, RFID-enabled smart cards have advantages over barcodes or magnetic-stripe cards.
Added memory in the IC chips allows for additional safeguards, such as encrypting identifying data stored to the card. An advantage of smart cards are their microprocessors, allowing them to interact with readers through a ¨handshake,〃 or receiving signals from the readers and generating unique codes in response. Thi s makes them particularly well suited for access control applications. Bosch Security Systems offers a range of readers, including a high-frequency (13.56 MHz) reader that also encrypts transmission between tags and readers for added protection. The interrogator can be used flexibly for contact and contactless cards, maximizing existing investment in security equipment.
The flexibility of smart cards allows a wide range of uses. Mass transit cards, credit cards and e-passports all store sensitive data that require extra security. This makes passports and payment solutions two major markets, according to Fros t & Sullivan. With numerous transportation and government applications of smart cards, RFID vendors anticipate brisk business for secure smart cards.
Watching Out in Healthcare
The t racking abilities of RFID technology are suited for the healthcare vertical. From inventory t rack ing of medical equipment to digestible tags for medical observation, RFID can be applied as a solution or complement to existing technologies.
Disappearance of elderly patients has proven to be more of a security risk than infant abduction. ¨The big thing is Alzheimer's,〃 said Anthony DeStefano, Director of Integrated Security System for TAC. ¨ If the patient wanders out of the hospital, that happens more than the babies (being taken).〃 While TAC does not manufacture the patient monitoring equipment, it integrates RFID in hospitals to ensure patient safety. Should a patient's tracking device move to a restricted area, RFID sensors in the ceiling will pick up their movements and either lock down doors or limit elevator access to that floor. The integration of RFID into secur ity and building management systems makes it a key component for total security solutions.
Integration of RFID with legacy s ystems will also help smooth the transition from existing infrastructure. ¨ If you look at hospitals, for instance, providers are looking at a combination of RFID and RTLS (real-time location systems) that work with existing Wi-Fi networks,〃 Gouthaman said. ¨Targeted at the healthcare market, RFID is integrated with Wi-Fi to ensure the existing investment in Wi-Fi doesn't become obsolete and works much better with existing infrastructure.〃 Combining radio frequency and Internet networks promises to make RFID a complement to existing security solutions, enhancing interoperability and maximizing previous technological investments for users.
Unique Uses for RFID
Some vendor s ha ve adopted RFID for new applications. Zebra Technologies has aline of card printers with RFID-enabled parts that can identifyify the wrong equipment, such as ribbon cartridges, have been installed. ¨ The card printers employ RFID technology to automatically detect printer compatibility, determine ribbon cartridge type, provide automatic driver configuration and show the number of panels remaining,〃 said Kathryn Lodato, Director of Americas Marketing and Worldwide Marketing Services. ¨From a security standpoint, intelligent RFID-tagged printers deploying RFID technology and ribbons can stop counterfeiting. It will be virtually impossible for unauthorized personnel or thieves to print illegal cards because the printer's intelligent RFID control feature will operate only when the specific exact RFID-tagged ribbon is detected.〃
End Users Talk Back
With so many forms of RFID and so many applications, users have a variety of solutions for their needs. Trace Gunsch, an emerging technologies researcher in communications technologies for the U.S. Army, was called upon to investigate whether RF ID would be an appropr i ate solution for his location, a communication test agency. (His views in this article do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.) As the test facility had to test products for military communications, keeping track of those products became a task that RFID could eliminate.
¨For inventory efforts, we have a big inventory, so we thought about putting tags and an active reader to read them when we need to do a mandatory inventory (check), which i s f requent ,〃 he said. Per sonnel tracking would provide real-time locat ions for al l s taf f, al lowing individuals to be located quickly and accurately. Finally, RFID could enhance or replace access control into different laboratories, providing extra security.
Gunsch worked with a vendor to evaluate whether the Army could afford the hardware it wanted to install. For the inventory tagging, costs for individual nonremovable tags exceeded the Army's budget. ¨For asset tracking, vendors loan us the equipment to track,〃 he said. ¨Active tags are a lot more expensive than passive tags.〃 Given that he needed tamper-resistant tags as well, active tags simply were not economical.
An passive RFID access control solution was not a good fit either. ¨As far as access control, for getting in and out of rooms, security for RFID is risky at best,〃 Gunsch said. ¨Anybody can build an RFID reader, they can subtly read the access code from the valid tag. It's not hard to read a number, then copy it to a new tag and pass it through the reader. There are solutions out there for encryption of the tag. We didn't explore those very far, as cost was becoming the biggest driver for us.〃
Personnel tracking was also impractical and unwelcome by some. ¨It's social concern there too, with people's movements being tracked too closely,〃 Gunsch said. ¨People kept ask ing, 'Are they going to keep track of how many minutes I spend in the bathroom?'〃 Individual active tags, along with the number of readers required to keep tabs on where staff were, made the cost higher than existing contactless cards waved at door readers. As staff monitoring was less critical for this facility than a healthcare one, the cost of monitoring army personnel was not worth the convenience.
Ultimately, while the RFID solution promised to solve issues for the Army location, the cost was still too high for an adoption at the time. ¨My hours are better spent just doing automatic RFID queries, with all the things answering back on their locations, but my time is not worth the cost this system's going to be,〃 Gunsch said. Until specialized tags drop in price, such as nonremovable active item tags, the current cost of tags did not justify installing an RFID solution. However, the added security of RFID, especially with encrypted tags, made it an attractive option to keep in mind for the future.
Potential for RFID
With usage of RFID expanding and applications spanning diverse sectors, demand for the technology looks strong. Increased standardization, data encryption and usability in a number of environments give RFID advantages over previous identification technologies. As market standards provide for interoperability between vendors, more end users can maximize their existing infrastructure without having to replace their legacy systems completely. Usability in many environment s and more consistent s t andards will lead to increased adopt ion of RFID technology in security solutions. Falling costs and a variety of applications will lead to broader use of RFID as well. By fulfilling user needs, RFID is poised to be a key technology for integrated security solutions.