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The Radio Frequency IDentification Revolution

Introduction

RFID is fast taking shape as manifested by the recent media blitz and newspaper articles about the technology. Not many people are able to distinguish the different categories and benefits that the technology brings. It is the purpose of this paper to highlight on the history, uses and benefits that users of the technology are bound to accrue on adoption. Although not widely used as its counterpart the bar code, RFID is posed to work best when incorporated with the barcode technology. The advantage of RFID technology is that it is backward compliant hence along us to integrate with bar code technology. With an integrated database in use, users of RFID can ease business operations and save time and cost for both the manufacturer and the end consumer of the products tagged. This is especially true in a warehouse environment where there are many goods and many people involved in the processing of goods in and out of the warehouse. As much as there has been media frenzy about the technology, comprehensive research and public sensitization should be carried in order for it to be truly appreciated, (Burgess 2008).

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Background Information

The history of RFID technology spans back to the days of the Second World War where research was conducted by Leon Theremin to use RFID technology for the purposes of spying on other countries for the Soviet Union. Information was to be sent back to intelligence headquarters in the form of audio and hence conversations between individuals could be intercepted. This device was primarily used for listening rather than what the technology is used for today. Earlier on, the Royal Air force used similar techniques as that used in RFID in the identification of aircrafts. Using IFF (Identification-friend or foe) transponders, aircrafts could be determined if they belonged to the enemy or they belonged to one of their allies, (Finkenzeller 2003). A ground-breaking article by Harry stockman in 1948, forecasted that there was need for proper research on reflected power communication in order for humankind to truly benefit from its numerous uses and applications. The first RFID technology that utilized memory was introduced in 1973 by Mario Cardullo, who is described as the father of the modern RFID. His first device was activated by an external signal and was applied in the collection of government revenue in the toll systems. This technology later migrated to even incorporate the designs of parking systems as cars could be easily identified using the technology. The biggest user of RFID technology has been the department of Defense which is currently using over 1.5 million tags in the tracking of container that are shipped outside the US. This is necessary as sometimes the military could be transporting very harmful weapons that cannot be handled without proper care.

At present times research is now focusing on how to reduce the cost of equipment used for this technology in both the software and hardware aspect. Cheaper materials are being sought for this purpose and this is leading to better and more efficient solutions. Research is also focusing on how to transfer the information from the reader to other networks within an organization at a more faster with greater emphasis on increasing volume of data. As RFID becomes more popular, more and more products are being tagged and this is creating demand for the need for ways to deliver these bulky amounts of information from the reader to the database, in order to be reflected to the users who need it. Manufacturers of the technology are also developing new standards that ensure interoperability between their equipments; this will lead to a greater variety for the consumer. Standards for this technology are dictated by the EPC (Electronic Product Code) which is made up of firms specializing in the manufacture and marketing of RFID products, (Rochel 2008).

Technical Aspect

Radio frequency identification employs radio waves in the transmission of signal from the tagged product to the reader which is located some distance away. Radio waves have the advantage of passing through obstacles. RFID technology encompasses a range of both software and hardware solutions for the purposes of identification of goods. These goods can be tracked regardless of the location and the only limiting factor could be the characteristic of the tag and the corresponding reader (Shepard 2005). Some tags have an accompanying antenna which eases the reader in locating the tag. It also enhances the read rate of the tag. In essence, the reader transmits a signal to the tag and this signal is echoed back with information regarding the tag and the product attached to it. The relayed information is then analyzed using sophisticated software. The software also enables the users to locate the product in real time about its state and history. Each tag has an exclusive number that is used to identify it from the rest. This number also has information on the manufacturer of the tag. Further information that may be useful to the relevant organizations may also be integrated into the tag. The reader can obtain this information wirelessly from a distance and the information read at a high rate. This enables items to tracked from a long distances from he reader and at a fast rate hence being used in a myriad of applications. RFID tags can be placed in sensitive locations such as where radioactive elements are located hence enabling the tracking of radioactive elements as it does not need one to be near the radioactive element.

Components of RFID

Tag: This is a device that utilizes a microchip attached to an aerial which is miniaturized to beam back the signal received from the RFID reader with information about the product and its location around the organization. These tags come in all manner of shapes and sizes so as to be enclosed in all environments, (Finkenzeller 2003). The most preferred covering comes in plastic which ensures that the microchip and antenna are not susceptible to environmental elements of degradation such as heat and moisture. There are also active tags which also have a battery as an extra component.

RFID Reader: The reader is responsible for transmitting radio wave signals to the tag and collecting the received information. This information is relayed to a database where it is stored foe further analysis. Some readers have multiple antennas in order to pick out tags and enhance the speed at which information from the tags are collected.

Computer/ Database: Information received from the tags is processed via software run from the computer. The computer also enables the data to be stored in databases that could be connected other networks hence enabling the product to be located on a real time basis. Items can be located by just requesting the computer using certain commands imputed into the RFID software developed for processing data from the readers. Software are many and some are specific towards the type of reader and also to the manufacturer.

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Advantages of RFID

A book by Poirier( 2007) states that since radio waves are employed in location of objects, the product does not have to be within line of sight of the reader and this is a big advantage when taking into consideration that there are some products such as military hardware which could be dangerous when in close proximity. Such hardware could be radioactive materials. RFID tags are known to be durable as they can withstand environmental elements such as to much heat and this is one of the reasons that the military has used it in harsh terrains where climatic conditions are not favourable. RFID readers can detect tags that could be located far away. Active tags can be detected by readers located approximately 100 meters away. This gives the user advantage as they do not have to be near the tag. Another advantage that the technology has is that the readers can read multiple numbers of tags at the same time. This ensures that auditing and tracking of products is done faster and more efficiently. Last but not least is that the information stored on the tags can be altered when the need arises, this ensures that the tags can be reused in another cartons and hence this saves the organization revenue which would have been used in purchasing new ones.

Forms of RFID

In a research conducted by (Riquelme, 2006) found out that the tags are also categorized by the frequency they employ for operations. Frequencies normally used are between low (135 KHz), VHF (13.5 MHz), UHF (860MHz) and Microwave frequencies. These frequency groups dictate where the tags will be applied. As we all know that live animals including humans are susceptible to the effects of radiation. These tags are also used for asset tracking. High frequency tags (VHF) are used in condition where interference from other environmental elements is unacceptable. This could be located around the tag. This make sit hard for the tag to be detected by a reader. Tags employing Ultra high frequencies have the advantage of longer reading range i.e. around three meters and the speed at which this information is read by the reader is also fast as compared to other tags using other frequencies Espejo (2009).

There are three categories of RFID each displaying their different characteristics. These tags are large and have a read range of approximately a hundred meters, (Espejo 2009). Large amounts of data and be stored in them as the embedded microprocessor has a large capacity. It is these reasons that make the tag more costly than its counterparts. Another class of tags is passive tags that only have the microchip embedded into the tag. Unlike the active tag, the passive tag relies on the reader to activate a signal which will be picked up by the reader.In a study conducted by Duquenoy ( 2008) found out that these tags are much smaller and contain less data stored. They are much cheaper and the read range is much shorter i.e. less than three meters. The last class of RFID tags are battery assisted passive tags that are aided by batteries in energy creation so as to transmit signals. The difference with this tag is that the signal transmitted can travel further and hence be picked up by a reader more easily. Such tags are used in rough terrain or in harsh environments where it may be hard to reach.

The tags can also be categorized in order of how the information is stored in the RFID tag. There are tags that are read only, meaning that data stored in the tag cannot be modified. The Information in such tags is mostly the unique code identifier which is use d to identify the tag in the first place. This information is normally integrated when the tag was being manufactured (Espejo 40). There are tags that are categorized as write once meaning that data can only be modified and lastly there are read/write tags. These tags can be read and data modified as many times as the user would like. Such tags are more costly than their counterparts.

Challenges Faced by RFID technology

As much RFID technology has its benefits, it does have its challenges which are being addressed and research into how to solve the issue is taking shape. The first set of challenges faced by RFID is on the technological front where large amounts of data have to be made available to all people within an organization at precisely the same time. The delivery of information to people simultaneously is an big advantage as many readers can receive information from one tag and at the same time. This means that the tag is always visible. This places enormous burden on the network resources of a company and hence a comprehensive solution in terms of the readers and the backbone database has to be in place in order for all this data to be present to the users. In a research conducted by Riquelme,(2006) concluded that as the number of tagged products increase so does the need to expand the network serving this technology. Another set of challenges that are faced by users of this technology is the issue of security. In highly complex environments, where there are a number of persons interested in the same product, sets of authorization have to be in place so as to enable the distinction between who the owners of the system are. These issues normally arise in supply chain environments where many companies and individuals are involved. There is also an issue with how the devices are configured as configurations differ from one manufacturer to another (Thornton 2003).

Solutions to Challenges

As stated earlier, the issues surrounding RFID are being dealt with by numerous research and development initiatives. A study by Hedgepeth ( 2009) states that these initiatives are focused towards solving the issues surrounding this technology in order to make it more affordable to users and more adaptable for other applications. A good example of one solution used to tackle the problem of huge data overloads is that the companies need to come up with a network solution that is easily scalable with the demands of the firm, (Finkenzeller 2003). This will ensure that the technology grows at the same pace as demand and not just increasing network resources blindly. Another solution to the challenge of complexity in configuration is presented in the form of manufacturers coming up with clear set of standards as to how the technology will best be implemented. There are new standards that are always being incorporated within EPC in order to involve as many stakeholders as possible and also to make the technology as affordable and reachable to all. A concerted effort by stakeholders in the industry is ensuring that a solution that may impede the fast adoption of RFID technology is solved in the shortest time possible. This is done in order to allow the masses to enjoy the benefit that accompanies the technology.

Uses of RFID technology

RFID technology is used in numerous applications to increase revenue and reduce the time in which business operations are carried out. Supply chains are on of the most popular applications of RFID. With RFID technology, these two processes have been automated in a manner that ensures less human involvement and more accuracy in the process, this leads to less time taken for the product to go from the manufacturer to the retailer (Thornton 2006). A good case is how Wal-Mart increased revenue by demanding all suppliers start using RFID technology. Also in the Manufacturing sector where automation of manufacturing processes is required such as the labeling of specific products and also control of the products in a manufacturing line, RFID tags ands readers can be attached to the production line to identify which products are being produced. Another field that RFID plays is in Logistics & distribution of items. Goods can be easily tracked from the factory up to the end consumer thus better security for all parties involved in the supply chain. This security is imperative to people transporting goods across vast distances and hence this has led to more trust in our logistics system. Speed within the supply chain has been enhanced thus making the whole process of transporting goods much easier. This has provided mangers with a peace of mind so as to be able to focus their attention towards more needy tasks. The main problem described by the articles is the quick adoption of RFID technology in our societies by both individuals and businesses. The high cost of the tags and readers makes RFID, a very expensive undertaking, considering that all items need to be tagged in order to be accounted properly. Despite numerous developments in the area of tag manufacture, the cost of the tag still continues to be high leading to expensive solutions to both organizations and private individuals. All the articles reflect on the importance of having a cheapo solution that will cover both the manufacturer and consumer in order for the technology to be adapted on a larger scale.

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Summary

All the articles discussed above touch on the importance of RFID, as one of the drivers of growth particularly in the way businesses will be operated in the future. From technical aspects to general information, the journals described above illustrate the importance of simplification in an otherwise complex business world.

Solutions that have been proposed include the standardization of RFID protocols among manufacturers in order to ensure that implementation of the technology among organizations. Another solution that has been proposed is the manufacturing of RFID tags using cheap materials such as plastics and miniaturized components that make the tags very light and easy to stick and implement. Such solutions have proved to be important in making the technology more adaptable to consumers.

Conclusion

A discussion by (Clampitt, 2007) concludes that these are just some of the applications that we have discussed but the future of RFID technology is fast growing and in a few years time, the technology will be part and parcel of our lives as its adoption from the military to the mainstream population takes form. As the number of devices becomes more miniaturized, it will become much harder to track devices and this will make RFID technology more of a necessity. At the moment, there are many applications that are using bar code technology but the slow shift from this technology will no happen overnight but will be in phases so as to enable both technologies to work together in the same environment. At present times. It is getting much easier as software developers are integrating both technologies in applications utilizing RFID technology.

List of References

Burgess, S. (2008) Effective Web Presence Solutions for Small Businesses. Strategies for Successful Implementation, 15 (3) 45-5.

Clampitt, H. (2007) The RFID certification textbook. American RFID Solutions, 12 (2), 61-5.

Duquenoy, P. (2008) The future of identity in the information society. RFID Weekly, 16 (4), 56-9.

Espejo, R. (2009) RFID Technology.21st Tech. 18 (6), 45-7

Finkenzeller, K. (2003) The Emergence of RFID Technology. The RFID journal. 11 (2), 23-4.

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Hedgepeth, W. (2009) Oliver RFID metrics: decision making tools for today’s supply chains. Business Management, 4 (6), 25-9.

Poirier, C. (2007) A practical roadmap to success. RFID implementation. 23 (16), 18-9.

Riquelme, S. (2006) The global technology revolution 2020, in-depth analyses: bio- nano-materials-information trends, drivers, barriers, and social implications. Nano Technology Today, 2 (1), 15-9.

Rochel, R. (2008) RFID Technology and Impacts on Supply Chain Management Systems. Sydney: VDM Verlag.

Shepard, S. (2005) RFID: radio frequency identification. Electronic Journal. 18 (4), 16-9.

Thornton, F. (2006) 20th Century RFID security. Engineering Modern Journal. 13 (6), 23- 6.

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