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An Introduction to RFID

Foreword

As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve changed my focus from core web services and java technologies to RFID. As a result, over the past several months I’ve been reading just about everything I can get my hands on that might be related to RFID. Most recently this has included all of the RFID related posts on Product Traceability & RFID on SDN. One question that I saw repeatedly was from people who were totally new to RFID looking for basic information to get started in this space. RFID newbies, this is for you.

An Introduction to RFID

RFID technology is not new by any means, but only recently has it garnered enough attention to be on its way to becoming an everyday concept. Similar to the computer networking technologies that were invented in the late 60’s and 70’s that have now become pervasive due to the widespread adoption of the internet, RFID technology is poised to become ubiquitous as the “Internet of things” (a term coined at M.I.T. to describe a network of RFID enabled objects) gains momentum. This article is intended to serve as an introduction and will hopefully enable those interested in learning about the technology to gain a basic understanding of some of the more salient points about RFID.

Like the Internet, which got its start as a DARPA research project, RFID technology is thought to have been engendered in the pursuit of improving warfare technologies. In World War II the British invented IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) in which radar signals could be used to determine which team a given fighter plane was playing for, thus avoiding friendly fire and allowing a faster reaction to the approach of deadly enemy aircraft. Identification of airplanes was one specific use of the technology, but lately the identification mechanism is being used to identify a wide variety of items, including things like consumer goods or construction machinery.

What is RFID?

RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) is a technology that allows things to be identified via radio waves. An RFID reader sends an interrogating question (e.g. “who are you?”) to an RFID tag. The tag can then respond with an answer to the reader (e.g. I am product XYZ from company ABC). In this manner, similar to other sensing technologies, e.g. bar codes, RFID allows objects to be identified.

The fact that this sensing technology is based on radio waves, however, allows it some very unique features and properties. For example, radio waves can be transmitted directly through objects, which means that RFID readers don’t require a line of sight to read the RFID tag like a bar code would. More importantly, the radio waves carry with them a minute electrical current that can be used to power the tags, effectively turning them into very small, special purpose, computers (technically speaking, it’s an integrated circuit). It’s this power that the RFID tag uses to send the response to the RFID reader, which means that for these so-called passive tags, not only are batteries not included, they’re not required!

Though batteries may not be required, they can be very advantageous. Active tags are tags that have their own power sources and are capable of broadcasting information on their own. The additional power allows for more features, like longer read range, additional memory and larger storage spaces.

When a reader reads information from a tag (either active or passive) we have what is known as a read event. These events, by themselves, might not be all that interesting. But when the information on the tag is coupled with contextual information, insightful inferences can be made. For instance, if a reader is attached to the door of a storeroom and the tag passes by the reader, application logic can infer that the object to which the tag is attached has been moved into the storeroom.

Initially, much of the focus of RFID research was on the hardware and physical capabilities of the tags and readers, but lately the focus has shifted up the stack where information systems can utilize the information to the fullest.

RFID Standards

Much of this research was performed by the Auto-Id labs (funded in part by SAP) on the M.I.T. campus in the late 1990’s. On November 1st, 2003 this research evolved into a non-profit standards body called EPCglobal, a subsidiary of GS1, whose stated mission is to “make organizations more efficient by enabling true visibility of information about items in the supply chain.” The primary means by which they intend to achieve their goal is through the standardization and promotion of RFID technology.

As mentioned in the last section, there are more layers in the RFID technology stack than just tags and readers. EPCglobal, and its constituent members, have produced and are producing standards specifications to define the interfaces between these layers. These standards include things like the format of the data on tag, the communication protocol between the tag and the reader, the translation of the read to an application event, and even how to share those events with other entities, like a business partner in a supply chain. As this is my area of expertise, I will be diving into much more detail about these standards in the future. For now it is sufficient to note that they are very important in ensuring the success of RFID, as well as the businesses that depend on them.

Business Applications

Like the Internet in the early 1990’s, businesses have been quick to understand the possible benefits of RFID to their bottom lines. Attaching RFID tags to the physical products that move through the supply chain allows businesses to take advantage of what SAP terms Real World Awareness. Claus Heinrich writes in his book, RFID and Beyond:

“Business-oriented Real World Awareness techniques, such as Radio Frequency IDentification, are dramatically reducing the cost of automatically and instantly acquiring accurate information about almost every aspect of a business.”

By enhancing a business’s IT infrastructure with the ability to sense what is actually happening in the real world, business processes can be made more efficient. For example, pharmaceutical companies can track the locations of expensive medicine very closely, reducing the loss of goods due to theft (what the industry euphemistically refers to as shrinkage), and retailers can ensure that drugs are actually coming from the manufacturer, reducing the likelihood of counterfeit medicine being injected into the supply chain, and the costly law suits that can follow.

This is just one simple example of a business process that can be made more efficient through the use of RFID technology, and there are many more. In fact, not only are business processes being improved on by RFID, but some processes will actually require RFID in the future. The pharmaceutical industry is a prime example as pedigree information that proves the identity of the manufacturer of a drug and the route it has taken through the supply chain is now being regulated ever more stringently, and RFID is currently seen as the best way to solve this problem.

Mandates and compliance

It’s not just the government that is spurring RFID adoption though. Industry leaders like Wal-mart are also leading the charge. Several have taken a mandate approach, requiring their suppliers to affix RFID tags to the products they sell, in the hopes of achieving increased efficiency and reducing the costs of their supply chain. Wal-mart’s mandate to its top 100 suppliers was announced in 2003 and was a landmark in RFID history; effectively indicating that the technology had hit the mainstream. This huge push also created a demand for more tags, which helped reduce the price of tags, making them more affordable for other companies, which yet again increased demand and drove down prices. Wal-mart has adopted a phased approach, announcing the second wave of the next 200 suppliers last year, and they are expected to require their 600 top suppliers to be RFID enabled in 2007.

In order to comply with these mandates, many suppliers who feared losing their retailers adopted a ‘slap and ship’ approach, whereby a tag is simply affixed to the product and sent out the door (for information on how to do slap and ship with SAP’s AII product click here). Many companies realized quickly that this band-aid approach was enough to keep them from losing their spot on the retailer’s shelf, but that it was also just an added cost. The focus now is to find more strategic ways of adopting RFID so that ROI can be maximized, something that is becoming easier to do as the industry gains experience and tag prices fall.

RFID Security

As the spread of RFID increases, so do some of the concerns about the technology. One of the first practical applications of RFID technology was tracking animals, and the leap from animals to humans (humans ARE in fact animals) isn’t a hard one to make. This is one of the reasons that privacy advocates have been wary of the technology since the beginning. Fortunately for us, corporate interests in RFID tags lie in the ability to allow companies to track items more effectively through the supply chain and much less interested in invading the privacy of their customers. EPCglobal and its member companies understand that in order for RFID to take off in the way that they need it to, they need to address the privacy concerns of the end user. It is for that reason that the Gen 2 specification has a built in kill switch so that customers, if they so desire, can permanently disable RFID tags and eliminate any fear that the tag is being tracked.

Another RFID security aspect that I plan to discuss in more detail is that of the recent RFID virus scare. While the student who reported to have created an RFID virus succeeded in her goal of raising awareness about RFID security (an admirable goal, to be sure), my research indicates that her virus was contrived enough that it shouldn’t have received nearly the press that it did. For example, after checking with SAP’s lead software architect of our AII product, the virus described in the paper could never infect an SAP system.

SAP and RFID: Auto-Id Infrastructure (AII)

Speaking of SAP, since you’re reading an overview about RFID at an SAP website, this post would be incomplete without at least providing a basic introduction to SAP’s RFID solution. SAP is the world’s leading business application provider, and as the slogan notes, SAP helps businesses run better. With the current focus in the RFID space on how RFID can be used to make business processes more efficient, it is no surprise that SAP has a keen interest in the developments of RFID. Our AII (Auto-Id Infrastructure) product is used to RFID enable business processes, for example:

  • RFID tagging of cases and pallets
  • Packing cases onto pallets (unit load building)
  • Moving pallets within the warehouse
  • Loading pallets for outbound shipment

SAP’s AII has enjoyed considerable success, and SAP is viewed as the market leader in this space. See this for a more complete description of the AII product.

Conclusion

In this post we have gone through the basic overview of RFID and touched on some of the more poignant points about the technology and why it is important. RFID adoption continues to spread like wild fire and will soon be pervasive, ultimately impacting each and every one of us in ways we can only imagine. Much like the Internet has revolutionized our lives and the way we interact with each other, I believe RFID will have a significant impact on our daily lives and the way that we interact with the world around us. I look forward to exploring these topics in more depth in future posts here on SDN.

5 Comments
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  • Hi Steve,

    you say:

    >>>>Our AII (Auto-Id Infrastructure) product is used to RFID enable business processes

    it does, it does but… 🙂

    the main reason why you want to use AII
    it’s also the SAP R/3 , ERP integration
    and not all processes support this
    integration (with AII 4.0):

    >>>Packing cases onto pallets (unit load building)

    integrated

    >>>>Moving pallets within the warehouse

    not integrated

    >>>Loading pallets for outbound shipment

    integrated

    also new processes:

    RTI – not integerated

    inventory counting – not integrated

    let’s hope most of those not yet integrated processes will soon become integrated with R/3,ERP :))

    then AII will become the best there is for sure:))

    keep blogging about AII Steve:)

    Regards,
    michal

    • Hi Michael,

      First, thanks for your comment.  While AII can be used to RFID business processes in a standalone manner, it is true that the SAP R/3 ERP integration is of greater value.  I took the list of supported business processes from the AII documentation (linked in the post) and I was unaware (though it does make sense) that there are varying levels of integration for the buisness processes that are supported by AII.  I’ll make sure to pass along your request for the RTI and Inventory counting process integration to the appropriate people.  Making AII the best there is is definitely a goal of ours! 

      Cheers,
      Steve

  • Steve,
    Thank you for your introduction to RFID. As a result of your blog, I feel more at ease with the concepts surrounding it. My company deals with cosmetics that are shipped worldwide. As COO, it’s my job to streamline our enormous supply chain. I believe RFID is the solution I’ve been searching for! 

    I look forward to reading future posts from you. You’ve been added to my list of RSS feeds. 

  • Thanks for sharing information on RFID. I think its the technology of the future with computing getting more and more pervasive. I was interested in RF signals and wireless AD-HOC networks when I was a grad student. I had proposed an algorithm for wireless AD-HOC networks and had created a simulation in C++ and OPNET . After graduation I focused on ABAP and its been ABAP so far. The RFID techonology has rekindled my ineterest in RF-communication .
    Thanks again for sharing it.