Keeping track of things with RFID

Agriculture, healthcare and retail are some of the industries that already benefit from radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.

By Antoinette Price

RFID plays a key role in streamlining supply chain management applications, as the digitization of industries advances.

Supply chain logistics RFID tags enable inventory management systems to locate and track items in real time

This simple, effective and low-cost technology is being deployed by automotive manufacturers, dairy farmers, warehouse inventory managers and retailers, to name a few. It is also being used to fight counterfeit products, such as aerospace and motor vehicle parts, apparel, electronics, handbags, pharmaceuticals and watches.

Technology based on internationally agreed standards

IEC and ISO work together to produce international standards for barcode and RFID technologies. They cover data formats, syntax, structures, encoding, and technologies for the process of automatic identification and data capture (AIDC). The scope also includes associated devices for inter-industry applications and international business interchanges.

Barcodes are ubiquitous with some six billion scanned daily at retail checkouts alone. While both barcodes and RFID read and collect data, and track assets and inventory, there are differences – the main one being that optical scanners only work with an unobstructed view of the barcode, known as a clear line of sight. For example, products are scanned one at a time at the checkout. However, when RFID tags come within a certain distance of their reader, they are activated by radio signals, which means that potentially hundreds of tags could be read per second.

The use of RFID-based inventory management systems is growing, because they offer features which allow businesses to track items in real time, improve stock management and cut down checkout times.

Interview with Henri Barthel

e-tech caught up with Henri Barthel, who leads the development of IEC and ISO international standards for AIDC techniques, to learn more about the benefits of RFID and latest developments.

What type of applications use RFID?

Increasingly, RFID applications are used for inventory management, for warehouses, factories and retail outlets.

For example, in the car manufacturing industry, tagging component parts makes it easier to check that everything has been assembled correctly, as well as enabling the quick location of parts when required.

In the case of apparel, research shows the number of tags used in 2018 was in the range of eight billion worldwide, which represents only 10% of potential market capacity for that specific sector.

RFID tags can be embedded into the clothing or on a label and are disposable. They identify items uniquely in inventory management systems and cost between four and six cents, which is very affordable for large-scale deployment.

“This is a great example of the broad use of technology based on internationally agreed standards. RFID is well suited to the clothing industry where there are many variants of each product, such as size, shape or colour. In addition to the checkout process, it can be used for inventory management, to know in real time, what is in stock and what needs reordering. Stores can also control loss or theft of items as well as purchases, because when the RFID tag is scanned at the exit point, the stock system is made aware that the item has left the store. So if an item makes it through without being scanned, an anti-theft detection gate linked to the inventory system can trigger an alert.”

In the healthcare sector it is vital to be able to quickly identify, locate, authenticate and engage with different items particularly in hospitals. RFID applications enable staff and doctors to locate the exact equipment required for surgery and other treatments and ensure it has been properly sterilized. They can also secure the medicine supply chain, track tissue and specimen samples, improve patient flow, and more.

What are some of the main projects for 2019?

While the barcode is a relatively old technology it is very much alive and continues to evolve.

Rectangular DataMatrix and QR code

Currently, work is being done to develop a DataMatrix rectangular barcode (ISO/IEC DIS 21471) and a similar project is coming up for a rectangular QR code. The rectangular shape is easier to put on certain items, such as very small medical devices and equipment used in hospital theatre rooms. Current technologies enable to print or to engrave very small barcodes onto the products and to read them successfully.

A standard is being worked on, which will cover the quality of the printing or engraving of tiny codes, also known as the direct part marking of barcodes.

“We need conformance and performance standards to measure the quality of RFID for consumer and other goods. It is good to have a technology standard, but then how do you assess that the given product conforms to the standard? How can you say ‘my system is better than yours’, in other words how can you objectively measure the conformance and performance of RFID systems?”

User guides for applying RFID standards

The basic technologies of barcodes and RFID are relatively mature and being deployed, with 120 standards developed by IEC and ISO already in use. Now, there is a need for more application standards that explain how to use the technology, and give some sort of framework around what needs to be thought of and what the options are for end users who are going to adopt these AIDC technologies.

“We are working on a standard for electronic labelling (ISO/IEC WD 22603) using a barcode with a number, which would enable access to product data. This could include regulations which affect the product in different regions. In the electronics industry each country or region has different regulations and the requirements for explanations (books) of how to conform to these different regulations. This is a challenge. The idea is to scan the product barcode which takes you to a website and gives you the regulatory information on the specific item. This use of websites could be expanded to product indications for pharmaceuticals, a full list of ingredients in a food product, or a user manual for your washing machine, there are countless examples. This is already being done today in a proprietary manner, so our ambition is to have a standard which gives the framework for how to implement this kind of approach.”

Looking ahead

Smart fitting rooms, targeted advertising, marathon messaging, hand washing in hospitals, tracking casino chips and your drinks tab are some of the innovative ways RFID technology is being used.

IEC and ISO continue to follow industry progress, in order to deliver the standards required in a timely manner, to ensure RFID technology is interoperable, secure and works efficiently.

Gallery
Henri Barthel, Chair, ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 31, Automatic identification and data capture techniques Henri Barthel oversees standards development for AIDC technologies
Supply chain logistics RFID tags enable inventory management systems to locate and track items in real time