RFID was pioneered by the likes of Wal-Mart and the US Department of Defence. In the UK, Procter & Gamble, Gap, Tesco UK, and Marks & Spencer UK were adopting RFID as early as 2006. More widespread adoption of RFID was historically due to cost and a perceived lack of return on investment when tagging a range of assets or parts.
RFID also proved difficult to integrate with legacy systems (whether CRM, Warehouse Management, Stock control etc.). Yet the average factory selling prices of RFID have reduced drastically and shifted the ROI balance. Likewise the uptake of cloud-based open integration solutions is driving more interconnected software platforms for RFID with tighter links with Internet of Things.
RFID use cases
RFID has become possible for everything from wireless inventory tracking and logistics to counting casino chips. Radio-frequency identification, or RFID is now stepping up to help service businesses manage more complex equipment and maintenance operations. Computer servers that signal administrators when they’re overheating, pipes that detect deterioration, equipment that senses dangerous vibrations — new types of RFID tags can handle all those tasks, eliminating service calls and reducing human oversight.
In the past, RFID tags typically displayed a serial number and not much else. But now we have applications that can read those tags and know, ‘this is a piece of a water pipe.’ We can read the tags as they’re going down in the pipe. We know the history of the pipe: Is it damaged? Is the temperature changing? Now we can track the whole maintenance history.
Here are some use cases:
Inventory / Parts Tracking: Short-range RFID signals can alert a scanner to their presence, making taking inventory easier than ever. Some systems can also house information on the RFID tag about the part’s history.
GPS Locating: Longer-range active RFID allows a worker to locate a large piece of equipment in the field — say, on a water treatment site — with a computer or hand held reader.
Automated Maintenance: More sophisticated systems can relay information about a part’s condition, like the current temperature, back to HQ, replacing many planned maintenance calls.
Passive and active RFID
RFID tags use radio signals to transmit data to a computerised reader. Typically, they’re used in inventory and parts-tracking environments, such as large warehouses. Asda, for instance, has been a trailblazer with RFID in its massive back-office systems since it was introduced over a decade ago. “Passive” RFID tags simply reflect a signal to a handheld reader at close range — similar to a bar code.
These “active” tags, equipped with a small battery and radio antennae, can broadcast far more information, sometimes over long distances, not only giving supervisors a way to triangulate the whereabouts of a piece of equipment, but also transmitting data about its immediate environment. For certain kinds of equipment, that can be invaluable information.
For example, we have a utilities customer with large tankering operations. When you run wires on a tanker, that’s very expensive — it has to be safe, because of the danger of a spark starting a fire. So the customer has put vibration sensors on their equipment inside the tanker. So instead of having a person checking it once a week or whatever the maintenance schedule called for, they could set up those sensors to report back to them every minute, or day, or week.
If the data signals a potential problem, a maintenance engineer can be alerted to go have a look. Otherwise, routine maintenance checks can be performed automatically, and expensive engineer visits can be saved for the times a person is really needed to perform work.
Towards the measurement of everything
The measurement of everything will be driven by the proliferation of low-cost sensors included in smartphones, tablets, and mobile devices and already measuring aspects such as motion, gesture, facial recognition, brightness, location analysis, near field and RFID.
Use cases have been slow to develop, often due to difficulty in research and development into emerging hardware technologies and the difficulty in integrating sensors with legacy systems.
In the warehouse, pallet or item-level tagging using RFID tags will set the direction for IoT-driven smart-inventory management. Logistics data captured could include information on item’s volume and dimensions, which could then be aggregated and sent for processing. IoT tags can be used to transmit signals for real-time visibility of inventory levels and location identification if mis-stocked. For quality management, sensors can monitor the condition of an item and alert warehouse operatives when the temperature or humidity thresholds are about to be compromised.
IoT could be used to monitor the assets (spares and parts) in real time. Alerts could be triggered when the asset is exposed to delays or change in environmental conditions, or when testing equipment and critical assets are over-utilised.
Given the viable price point and the real opportunities to integrate RFID with IoT and sensor technologies delivered over a cloud-based platform it is surely time to thing again about your approach. Working with many field service organisation at Leadent, we have seen at first-hand the ways organisations can improve their approach and effectiveness.