Internet of Things breathes new life into RFID technology


About a decade or so ago, it was almost impossible to find a tech analyst who wasn't predicting that radio-frequency identification (RFID) would soon change the world. While RFID eventually became a useful tool in retail, logistics, healthcare and a handful of other enterprise sectors, the technology largely lurked in the shadows while other truly transformative concepts, such as social media and streaming entertainment, grabbed the spotlight.

Now, with RFID well into its second decade of adoption, the technology's proponents are busily prepping for a second act. Nina Turner, a research manager
 at IDC, notes that while RFID failed to live up to its lofty initial expectations, "its future is far from hopeless."

Like an aging actor who no longer finds himself in demand for leading man roles, RFID is now transitioning itself into a supporting player by becoming an essential part of the next next big thing—the Internet of Things (IoT).

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Diminished expectations

An RFID tag can be viewed as a supercharged bar code with radio connectivity. RFID readers can wirelessly detect and track tagged items as they move through the supply chain, are stored in inventory, sit on a sales floor or roll down a production line. RFID readers, tags, and chips provide an identification system that can track huge numbers of almost anything, from cases of beer to oil refinery sensors.

Back in the days when RFID appeared to be a "can't miss" technology, many experts predicted that one of its biggest impacts would be in retail. Shoppers would simply breeze by reader-equipped checkout stations that would automatically recognize products in a basket or bag and then deduct the appropriate amount from the user's credit or debit card account.

That didn’t exactly happen. High tag costs (still hovering in the seven- to 15-cents range for the cheapest passive tags) made item-level tracking for everyday products too expensive. The high cost of fixed and mobile RFID readers also deterred many businesses from adopting RFID for routine supply chain and inventory management tasks. "What we’ve found is that companies will only deploy solutions if there’s a problem," says Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx a market research firm in Cambridge, England. "They don’t tend to do things frivolously."

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In areas where problems genuinely exist, such as in the tracking and management of high value assets like apparel, jewelry or medical equipment, RFID did indeed manage to gain a foothold. "Retail apparel was, and remains today, the biggest driver for the technology," says Chris Diorio, CEO of RFID technology manufacturer Impinj. In pharmaceuticals, where item prices are generally high and counterfeiting is rampant (and potentially lethal), RFID tracking is now frequently used to maintain close oversight on products as they move from manufacturer to distributor to pharmacy.

RFID meets IoT

The IoT, as currently envisioned, will consist of many interconnected networks based on a hodgepodge of specifications and standards. Some of these networks, including RFID, already exist, others are still being developed and many have yet to be imagined. "I don’t think RFID is ever going to be replaced; it is only one component in an IoT implementation," Turner says.

"The landscape of the Internet of Things is complex and will only get more complicated," says Kevin Berisso, chair of the IoT Committee at the Association for Automatic Identification & Mobility (AIM) and RFID industry organization headquartered in Cranberry Township, Pa. "Competing platforms are still evolving and pathways to interoperability between them need to be built."

Erick Brethenoux, IBM's director of analytics, views RFID as simply another IoT data channel. "The Internet of Things just means using data from different devices, and integrating that data into existing or new business solutions," he says. "RFID is one of those inputs," he says.

While RFID will not be the only technology used in the IoT to identify objects and link them to the Internet, passive ultrahigh frequency (UGF) RFID tags and Near Field Communication (NFC) technologies are emerging as the two most likely standards, Berisso says.

Virtually all IoT applications possess a common element: connecting the physical and digital worlds. RFID bridges these realms by supplying data that identifies a specific object at an exact place and time. "You interrogate the tag, and it responds with an identifier so you get a unique identification," says Phil Gerskovich, senior vice president for new growth platforms for Zebra Technologies, an RFID device manufacturer headquartered in Lincolnshire, Ill. "That most basic level of interaction has always been a part of RFID and is very compatible with the Internet of Things."

"Where RFID is going to play in the Internet of Things is by adding the unique value of what’s going on at a particular point on a specific object at an exact time," says Doug Bellin, global senior manager, manufacturing and mining, at Cisco. "There's value in that sort of insight."

Preparing for the IoT's arrival, several RFID market players have joined with cloud service providers, chipmakers and other tech businesses to promote UHF RFID as an essential part of the IoT. In 2014, Google, Impinj, Intel and SMARTRAC, along with the leading radio identification industry association AIM Global, formed the RAIN (RAdio-frequency IdentificatioN) Alliance. RAIN's stated goal is to promote awareness, education, and initiatives to accelerate UHF RFID growth and adoption in business and consumer applications worldwide.

Diorio believes that a RAIN effort to integrate RFID readers into smartphones will make the technology easily available to an entirely new user base: consumers. "Once RAIN RFID readers get into phones, you’ll be able to read the tags that are on items," he says. "You’ll be able to read tags that are on shirts and apparel that you bought; you’re going to be able to read the tags that are on books or food you bought at a store."

Potential applications

At first glance, many promised IoT services appear strikingly similar to the uses RFID proponents were touting back when the technology was still riding the peak of the hype cycle, including supply chain object traceability, enhanced inventory tracking and rapid point-of-sale self service. "The killer application of RFID is still inventory management," Das says. Yet the IoT, by combining the power of the Internet with a complex mix of cutting edge identification, sensor and cloud technologies, promises to make such services more useful, ubiquitous and less expensive.

Technology advancements are also transforming passive tags into powerful data collectors. "Today, besides location, the RFID signal can also be used to tell you the condition of an object," Gerskovich says. "It could be used to tell you what its temperature is or the humidity surrounding the object." Earlier this year, RFMicron released RFID chips incorporating temperature, moisture, weight, proximity and pressure capabilities.

RFID's greatest potential within the IoT may be its ability to track people and the objects they encounter and use. A growing number of government documents now incorporate RFID chips, including passport cards and enhanced driver licenses. Waiting in the wings, or already available in limited deployments, are RFID-equipped theme park identity bracelets, hotel room access cards and rental car key fobs.

Disney Research earlier this year demonstrated that RFID tags can be used to cheaply and unobtrusively determine how people use and interact with daily objects, enabling new types of interactive play and smart homes and work environments, as well as new methods for studying consumer shopping habits. According to Disney Research, the investigators found that their system, called IDSense, allowed them to simultaneously track 20 objects in a room and infer four classes of movements with 93 percent accuracy.

What's next?

According to Das, maturing RFID technology, falling costs and anticipation of IoT integration are combining to boost both adoption and the expansion of existing deployments. "RFID is really exploding in terms of growth," he says. "It went through a period of very big interest about 10 years ago, and then people were disappointed with its uptake, so it really hit that trough of disillusionment between about 2008 and 2011."

Sales have since bounced back. "To give you some context, in 2014, around 7 billion RFID tags were sold," Das says. "In 2015, we forecast about 9.2 billion tags will be sold."

Gerskovich predicts that RFID vendors will work hard over the next several years to make their products IoT compatible. "Today, most RFID readers are capable of talking on only local area networks, not over the broader Internet," he says. "That will require software changes by vendors to enable connectivity to IoT platforms."

Turner expects that RFID's integration into the IoT will occur gradually. "The key thing with the IoT is that it’s not going to happen on a certain date," she says. "It’s going to grow gradually as people understand their systems better; as they do trial implementations, adoption will increase."

Edwards is a freelance writer. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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