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RFID basics
Here's an introduction to the tags, readers and software
that make up an RFID system, as well as common
materials handling applications ofthe technology.
By Corinne Kator, Associate Editor

R adio frequency identification, or RFID, Is

a form of automatic identification technol-
ogy that—much like bar codes and magnetic
stripes—can be used to carry data about an object
and transfer it to a computer, reducing the time and
RFID tags can he active, passive or semi-passive.
Active tags include a hatter\' and use the power
Irom the battery to transmit their signal. Ihe battery
gives this style of tag an especially long read range. It
also increases the price ofthe tag.
labor needed for manual data entry. Passive tags have no batteries and instead use
While most automatic identification technologies energy from an RFID reader to power their transmis-
require at least some labor (scanning, swiping, etc.). sions. Passive tags are less e.v[;)ensive than active tags,
an KFID system can be truly automatic. but they have a limited read range.
A basic RFID system includes an RFID tag, an Semi-passive tags, also called battery-assisted tags,
RFID reader and a host computer. When a reader use a battery to boost the response ofa passive tag.
energizes a tag, the data stored in the tag's memor>' is RFID tags can he designed to transmit at one of
transmitted to the reader via radio waves. The reader several frequencies. Generally, higher frequency tags
then communicates the necessar)' data to the host translcr data more quickly but are less able to pen-
computer so the computers software can act on the etrate water, grease and other obstructions. Two of
data. This entire process can be completed with no the most common frequeneies are 13.56 mHz and
human intervention. 860-920 mHz:
Common uses of RFID include card keys that • 13.56 mHz tags, also known as high frequency
controi access to buildings, E-ZPass transponders (HF) tags, are popular for ID badges, library books
that automatically pay roadway tolls and ID tags for and anti-counterfeiting applications
pets and livestock. RFID technology also has many • 860-920 mHz tags, also known as ultra high fre-
industrial uses, including several materials handling quency (UHF) tags, are the most common choice for
applications, case, pallet and shipping container tracking
The memor)' in an RFID tag can be configured in
RFID tags a variety of ways. For example, the data on a repro-
Most RFID tags have at least two parts: grammable tag can be written and rewritten again
1. A silicon chip for storing information and again, while a WORM (write once, ready many)
2. An antenna for receiving and transmitting a signal tag is programmed at the factory and cannot he writ-
Tags come in various shapes and sizes, depending on ten to again.
the application. The RFID tags tj-picatly used in ship- Information is written to an RFID tag by a device
ping labels combine a tiny square chip (smaller than the called an encoder. RFID encoders are usually inte-
head ofa pin) with a i- to 4-inch-wide antenna. Two of grated with RFID readers because the two devices
the most common antenna shapes for shipping labels use many ot the same components. Encoders are also
are squiggle and douhle cross (see illustration). commonly integrated with label printers.


Antennas and readers that can be used in other systems. This filtering and
An HFID reader, sometimes also called an interrogator, translating software can reside on the RFID reader or
reads the data stored on an RFID tag and passes it to a host host computer.
computer for processing. A reader is essentially a small ho.\ of Once the information has been filtered and translated
electronic components connected to one or more antennas. into a usable format, it must be interpreted and applied
The antennas emit radio signals to activate RFID tags and to to business processes. Different uses of RFID require
read and write data. different applieation software. Using RFID tags to track
RFID readers range from large tunnel structures to inventory in a warehouse, for example, requires an RFID-
devices small enough to fit inside a cell phone. The major enabled warehouse management system that can identify
difference is the antenna.
The size and shape of an
antenna varies by applica- RFID tags
tion, frequency and the 3\
required read range—the
larger the antenna, the
longer the range.
Fixed location read-
ers are mounted in one
place—near a con-
veyor line, for example,
or surrounding a dock
door—^while portable
readers can be mounted
on lift trucks or designed
as handheld devices.
Fiandheld readers typi-
cally have a short read
range because their
antennas are small.
Most RFID anten-
nas and readers are not yet "plug-ynd-play" devices, says RFID tag antennas come in a variety of shapes. Two
Bert Moore, director of eommunications for AIM Global common shapes for passive tags are the squiggle (left)
(724-9ii4-4470, www.aimglobai.org), a trade associalion and double cross (right).
representing makers of automatic identification equipment.
The radio waves emitted by large antennas, he says. tra\el and track individuai eases using the electronic product
in all directions and can bounce off surrounding objects. codes (EPCs) stored on the tags.
End users usually work closely with a supplier, he says, to
choose and position an appropriate antenna and to install Materials handling applications
barriers if necessary. Manufacturers have been finding uses for RFID for decades,
and the technology is now making its way into warehouses
Software and distribution centers as a potential replacement for bar
For the data collected from RFID tags to be useful, it usually codes, The following are some of the most common materi-
mList be I iltered and interpreted by multiple layers of software. als handling applications for RFID.
RFID readers usually gather much more data than neces- Tracking goods in the supply chain: Thanks to RFID
sary, explains Moore. They read the same tag muitiple times initiatives at Wal-Mart and other major retailers, much atten-
or read all the data stored on a tag when only portions are tion has been paid in recent years to the use of RFID tags
needed for the application. For this reason, says Moore, most to track goods in the supply chain. These inilialives require
RFID systems require filtering software—often ealled edge- suppliers to encode HFID tags with a unique ID number (.an
ware or middleware—that recognizes the significant data electronic product code, or EPC) and place the tags on cases
and filters out the rest. (Barcode readers also require similar of merchandise before shipping them to the retailer. The pas-
fillering software.) sive UHF tags are often embedded in a shipping label.
Edgeware ean also translate tag data into a format In theorv, the RFID tags can traek items more precisely



Readers and antennas being refined.

The organization EPCglobal (ww'w.epcglobalinc.org) bas
been working to standardize the use of tags, readers and soft-
ware In supply cbain applications.
Process tracking: RFID tecbnoiogy can be used to track
products tbroughoiit tbe manufacturing process. Automobile
nianufaclurers. for example, often place HFiD tags on car
bodies and write information to tbe tags as eacb task in tbe
manufacturing process is accomplisbed. Process manufac-
turers use HFID tags in a similar way to track tbe ingredients
tbat go into eacb lot and batcb of products.
Wben defective products are discovered, says Moore, the
information captured on tbese RMD tags can heip to make
product recalls faster and more specific.
Asset tracking and locating: RFID tags are used to
An RFID reader is essentially a small box of electronic track and locate a variety o! expensive assets, irom drill bits
components (left) connected to one or more antennas to lift trucks to railcars. In some systems, readers are moimt-
(right). cd above tbe entrance to a tool crib, monitoring wben tools
enter and leave. In otbers, users walk around witb a hand-
ihitn Iradilional bar codes, and they can be read faster with beld RFID reader, waiting for it to identify a needed item. In
loss burnan intenention. incrotising visibility and efficiency some real-time |{)cation systems, special active RFID tags act
in the supply cbain. Ibe hardware, software and business as beacons, broadcasting a signal identifying tbeir location at
practices for these applications of RFID, bowever, are still regular intervals. ©

RFID hardware manufacturers

Company Web site Phone Passive tags Active tags Readers
Accu-Sort Systems www.accusort.com 800-227-2633 /
Aero Scout www.aeroscout.com 650-596-2994 • /
Alien Technology www.aHentechnology.com 408-782-3900 /
AWID www.awid.com 408-825-1100 /
Confidex www.confidex.fi 609-605-0670 /
Ekahau www.ekahau.cam 866-435-2428 /
Hi-G-Tek www.higtek.com 301-279-0022 / /
Identec Solutions www.identGcsolutions.com 866 402 4211 / /
Impinj www.impinj.com 866-467-4650 / /
InnerWireless www.innGrwireless.com 972-479-9898 /
Intermec www.intermec.com 360-695-5766 / /
LXE www.lxe.com 770-447-4224 /
Metalcraft www.idplate.com 800-437-5283 /
Motorola www.symbol.com 866-416-8545 / /
Omron www.omronrfid.com 888-303-7343 / /
RF Code www.rfcode.com 877-969-2828 • /
Savi Technology www.savi.com 800-428-0554 • /
Sirit www.sirit.com 800-498-8760 /
Psion Teklogix www.psionteklogix.com 800-322-3437
TAGSYS www.tagsysrfid.com 877-550-7343 / /
ThingMagic www.thingmagic.com 866-833-4069 /
UPM Raflatac www.upmraflatac.com 828-651-4788 /
WhereNet www.wherenet.com 800-490-2261 /