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Top RFID Trends for 2017  

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by Tom O’Boyle, Director of RFID – Barcoding, Inc.

The Internet of Things (IoT) world may be new to some, but it has already made a big impact in the current industrial revolution — also known as Industry 4.0 — and will continue to rapidly grow in popularity in the years to come. Industry 4.0, the term coined for smart factories that machine-monitor physical processes while simultaneously communicating with humans and their technologies (such as IoT devices) in real time, ultimately enabling data streams to be collected. This collected data gives organizations and their executives advanced analytics to make better business decisions and improve efficiencies in operations to generate cost savings.

This is exactly why businesses that are not already doing so need to recognize and constantly look for ways to utilize this technology more each day. In fact, the number of connected devices is growing at an exponential rate; Gartner, Inc. predicts that there will be 20.8 billion connected things by 2020. And that doesn’t address the trillions of physical items that aren’t already connected to the Internet. But with this rapid progression, it can be hard to understand the full potential of technology and keep on top of the latest trends. So in order to help those who are actively seeking the best solutions, here is a look at the three biggest trends that are expected to play a central role in 2017, some use cases of solutions already in action and how they will have an effect on applications in the years to come.

RAIN RFID

The RFID industry has coined a new name for passive, ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID: RAIN RFID. RAIN RFID—an acronym derived from RAdio frequency IdentificatioN—is a wireless technology that connects, stores, manages and shares billions of everyday items via the Internet. This enables businesses and consumers to identify, locate, authenticate and engage with each item, which is why RAIN RFID is such an integral part of IoT and a key enabler of Industry 4.0. In fact, according to the global alliance promoting RAIN RFID, it is predicted that 28 billion devices and items will be connected in 2020 with RAIN RFID. This supports IDTechEX’s theory that the value of the RFID market will reach $32 billion by 2024.

Here’s how it works: during the manufacturing process, a RAIN RFID tag is either attached or embedded into an item, creating an endpoint. Using a real-time monitoring system that is mounted on a ceiling, also referred to as a RAIN RFID gateway or reader, the tagged item is read and data is collected — locally on a server or in the cloud. This creates an audit trail, or chain of custody, which details information about inventory assets, parts or items that can be used to reduce operation costs and increase efficiency. So for instance, if there is a recall, a manufacturer can review the collected data, pinpoint the batch that contains the affected products and quickly pull that batch from the inventory. This means time and money are not wasted searching for the bad batch of product.

While RAIN RFID is not a new idea, its use in covering large zones called “wide area” monitoring technology is projected to take off in 2017 and become a predominant RAIN RFID deployment for companies in industrial, manufacturing, distribution and retail environments where businesses want to know identification, location or movement of assets or items in real-time. Wide area RAIN RFID gives you the power to move your product and inventory as you would in your normal course of business without having to physically force it through an opening, choke point, or portals. Wide area RAIN RFID can cover large areas of existing open floor space or racking to create an always-on view to identify what assets are in the area, what has left the area, and to watch the path of specific inventory. The main benefits of this technology are that it allows manufacturers to make design and work flow changes without RAIN RFID hardware changes. This eliminates significant costs that go with creating lanes for portals and their quiet zones, offers low-cost chips and tags so manufacturers can tag every item, part or finished good — even inexpensive items.  Since RAIN RFID has no battery on the tagged items, they will never “disappear” from view.  RAIN RFID tags can be as small as 2.5 cm by 2.5 cm to attach to circuit boards or very small parts.

To do wide area monitoring using RAIN RFID, you’d deploy fixed gateways to either the ceiling or walls of the areas you want to monitor assets within, or as they exit, enter or transition between. Certain gateways can read up to 1000 tags per second and cover an area of up to 1500 sq. ft. You can expand the coverage zone by adding gateways. By covering an entire area with gateways, you can locate, identify or authenticate the assets you tagged within that area.

Automotive manufacturing has a history of leading factory automation innovation and has adopted RAIN RFID to implement modern processes like lean manufacturing or just in time manufacturing. Plants in Germany, the United Kingdom and the USA for a range of auto manufacturers deploy RAIN RFID on assembly lines for WIP (work in progress) tracking of fabricated metal parts like body panels, or matching parts to a specific custom vehicle. RAIN RFID is ideal for a part like a body panel, which is usually large in size and subjected to harsh conditions that make it difficult to use bar codes or HF RFID for automatic data collection.  Durable RAIN RFID tags can operate through acid washes, paint and high temperature baking; these tags can also be read from several meters away without line of sight, which enables automatic data collection at every process step on a production line.  This visibility is critical to “lean” or “just in time” manufacturing processes, especially on automotive production lines because of the process complexity and high SKU count.


Use Case #1: Reducing Costs of Returnables

By automating the tracking of returnable transport items (RTI) using HID Global (HID) RAIN RFID tags, HID customers are able to gain accurate recordkeeping and avoid lost or misplaced items, such as gas cylinders and kegs. 

Background: Some of HID’s customers track a variety of metal assets, such as gas cylinders and beverage kegs, which can be difficult to monitor as they move to and from the locations where they’re used. The need for rigorous cleaning and painting limited the use of optical auto-identification technologies. When these assets are not returned, companies’ business processes suffered and companies have to purchase replacements. Additionally, companies struggled with keeping track of maintenance and safety records and the manual process of recording was time consuming and oftentimes contained inaccuracies.

Solution: Using an HID RAIN RFID solution with the Impinj platform, HID was able to help its customers automatically track metal kegs and gas cylinders throughout the entire process. HID’s patent-pending 3D antenna usage provided omnidirectional reading capabilities.

Results: The solution delivered traceability of containers at a distance of more than eight meters. This allows a customer’s system to automatically identify all the items on a pallet or contained on a curtain-side truck. Companies gained automated shipping validation as well as automated the tracking of maintenance, cleaning and repair records. Companies can now maintain a full record of quality control and safety relevant procedures and inspections. Reduced time-consuming manual counts; elimination of manual errors improved record keeping. With the added ability to identify losses and the location of missing assets, HID customers gained complete inventory accuracy.


Bluetooth® Low Energy Beacons

Businesses already rely heavily on Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as smartphones and tablets within their enterprises. So it comes as no surprise that they’re adopting the Bluetooth technology in other areas of their business. For example, a growing number of industries are using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons or tags to continuously and accurately track information about a selected asset’s presence, temperature and movement. Not only do these BLE beacons function as signal transmitters, but they are also majorly battery-powered and can be configured with the help of a mobile app, as well as permit smartphones to primarily act as the receivers. In doing so, these highly accessible proximity detection devices are able to broadcast outbound signals. And, for those who are rightfully concerned about security breaches while using BLE beacons, it is important to note that encrypted passwords can be enabled, ensuring that there is no inherent security risk in the transmission.

BLE beacon systems can be deployed rather quickly by coding the tags and connecting them to an asset. They are ideal for tracking discrete sets of items, high-value items, and items with a variable movement pattern that isn’t always contained to specific zones or areas.

RAIN RFID may work for some businesses, but it is not ideal for all. This is why those looking for an alternative solution are turning to BLE beacons in 2017. Previously, BLE beacons were specifically made for consumer grade applications or for retail customer experience systems. However, in 2017 BLE tags are taking an industrial turn and becoming an affordable and realistic option for more industries.

Hybrid RFID Systems

Last, but not least, are Hybrid RFID Systems. Typically, organizations choose between two types of RFID tags – passive (such as RAIN) and active (such as BLE) – depending on the type of asset they are tracking. However, businesses are beginning to see that  they can utilize both RAIN RFID and BLE beacons to provide one, unified visibility solution for tracking assets within a facility. There is no longer the debate of having to select one type of tag over the other. For instance, BLE tags may be used to track large equipment, while RAIN RFID tags are used to track the individual parts, completed inventory, pallets or containers of product. As both types of assets are tracked, operators can view everything in real time from a software interface, making hybrid solutions even more affordable and an attractive option in 2017.

The central piece of such a hybrid solution is not the tags themselves, but the software that brings the two together. As data is collected from the active and passive systems, it is fed into an asset management tracking and alerting software application, which in turn aggregates the information into a single interface. Now, you have complete, optimal traceability of all assets, regardless of whether they are tracked with active or passive RFID. And, not only can you track and trace your assets within the system, but you can also create custom reports and set up rules-based alerts for additional benefits. Bring in integrations with other lines-of-business applications, like enterprise resource planning (ERP) and warehouse management system (WMS) systems, and you’ll further extend the capabilities of your solution.


Use Case #2: Placing Bets on BLE Beacons

The security of a casino is of the utmost importance. This is why Mount Airy Casino Resort has turned to an asset tracker solution to prevent employees from leaving the casino with their keys, ultimately enhancing security and maintaining regulatory compliance. 

Background: Mount Airy Casino Resort, located in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania, had issues with casino keys leaving a facility. Due to stringent casino industry regulations, Mount Airy Casino faced hefty fines with each infraction. To avoid these fines, establish accountability, and deter theft and duplication, the casino sought a solution to enhance security and maintain regulatory compliance by preventing keys from leaving the casino floor.

Solution: Comprised of BLE beacons, a CloudNode (or smartphone) and a mobile application, the asset tracking solution allows users to continuously and accurately track information about an asset’s presence, temperature and movement. For Mount Airy Casino Resort’s implementation, the BLE beacons were attached to each of the targeted key’s rings and the facility operators installed a CloudNode and a stack light near the facility exit. When the CloudNode detects a “tagged” key ring in the area, the system turns on the stack light and sends an email alert to security about the incident.

Results: The asset tracking solution in place, Mount Airy Casino employees are notified by sound before they exit the facility with their keys. The casino has dramatically reduced its risk of fines, enabling them to meet regulatory compliance standards and has further deterred theft and duplication of the keys. The system is also very flexible and can easily be installed and replicated in other areas of the casino if required.


Honorable Mention RFID Trends

While RAIN RFID, BLE Beacons and Hybrid RFID systems are 2017’s trending front runners, we wanted to give recognition to two more rising RFID trends:

Use of Memory Space: RFID tags now have the space to store information beyond a simple identifier. More enterprises are taking advantage of this, utilizing tags as a notepad or flash drive. Plus, there is no need to upload the information to a database in order to retrieve it.

Pre-printed Tags: The technology exists to print and encode RFID labels on demand. But, instead of printing their own labels, many users are purchasing pre-printed/pre-encoded labels. This approach is not only cost effective, but also frees up personnel from monitoring and managing printers onsite.

In Closing

With lower system costs, greater solution reliability and higher adoption rates, it is no surprise that RFID-based technology is poised for an explosive year. We’ve already seen a large number of businesses focus on the real deployment and monetization of IoT systems, including both RAIN RFID and BLE beacons, which means there is no better time than now to be proactive and deploy these solutions. Implementing a RAIN RFID, BLE beacons or a Hybrid RFID system will enable you to operate more efficiently and accurately, while positively impacting your entire enterprise and improving your bottom line.

About the Author

Tom O’Boyle, director of RFID for Barcoding, Inc., possesses 17 years of experience in RFID technology and more than 25 years of experience in sales, product, and channel management for leading technology companies. At Barcoding, O’Boyle leads the company’s dedicated practice, RFID by Barcoding, in the design, integration, and deployment of RFID solutions for a wide range of industries including supply chain, manufacturing, healthcare, education and defense.

O’Boyle came to Barcoding in May 2013 as a result of the company’s acquisition of Miles Technologies, Inc., which he joined in 1999 as a partner/principal. Prior to Miles, O’Boyle held positions with Zebra Technologies and Silicon Engines, and successfully led RFID implementations at major companies such as Kodak, Hospira, CDW, Kenwood, and Emerson. O’Boyle graduated from DeVry Institute of Technology in Chicago with a Bachelor of Science in electronics engineering technology and is certified in RFID Technology by Zebra Technologies, Alien Technology, Impinj, Intermec, and others.  In addition, O’Boyle was a contributing technical editor for the book, RFID+ Exam Cram 2, was named a 2014 Provider Pro to Know by Supply & Demand Chain Executive, and is a frequent industry speaker.

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