Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology has been sending data through radio signals as long as many electrical contractors have been in business. For the past 35 years, these chips have stored data. Antennas have sent that information through radio signals to a receiver for purposes such as highway toll collection and asset tracking. But lately, RFID, the once rare and expensive solution, is finding a growing number of new users and applications everywhere from the government to ports, hospitals and farms.

The growth is just beginning. According to British analysts IDTechEx, sales of active RFID systems will reach $6.78 billion worldwide in 2016 because of stronger market demand for tracking, locating and monitoring people and things driven by security, safety, cost and customer satisfaction. The cost of tags is dropping, making it affordable to companies that previously settled on barcoding. With lower power circuits in these devices, button batteries now are adequate for most applications, and even printed batteries—those that are basically printed on paper—are gaining a place in the market.

Open standards also are becoming available, which is catching the attention of prospective users. The new ISO 18000 EPC Types 3 and 4, and IEEE 802.15.4 both make RFID much more manageable for users. IDTechEx also has seen development of companies leveraging many newly popular forms of short-range wireless communication, particularly Wi-Fi and ZigBee.

With all these improvements, RFID is beginning to appear in a variety of places. Active 433 MHz ultra-high-frequency RFID chips embedded in bracelets are being used in hospitals to track patients, newborns and staff members with readers installed throughout facilities. The same chips in an adhesive tag help staff members find a specific cardiac device in the midst of emergency surgery in seconds. And, on the manufacturing floor, RFID tags help companies track where a car chassis, for example, is on the assembly line and eventually where that assembled car is parked on the holding lot. Beef producers can track their cattle with RFID, allowing them to find specific cows that may be sick, thereby reducing risk of widespread outbreaks.

ABI Research’s Michael Liard, research director, RFID, has been watching the growth of RFID across numerous markets and sees it mostly in use in horizontal applications such as access control and access management. Automotive, aerospace and hospitals still are at the forefront, using RFID to know who and what is where within a closed loop, Liard said.

In aerospace and defense, there is a growing interest in both active and semi-active RFID, which saves battery life by going into passive mode until “woken up” by an exciter. This helps the government in spare-parts tracking, ensuring items are where they should be and also ensuring they are authentic upon arrival.

For freight management, shippers are putting seals with RFID tags on containers and ports. The embedded tags go through a network. The tags allow authorities to track tampering through a fiber optic cable that sends an alert if it is cut. In addition, temperature, shock or humidity of the container and its location can be monitored. The tags are a good solution to security and antiterrorism challenges as well as supply-chain tracking.

This growth across multiple industries signals a new prominence for active RFID according to experts in the technology. And while passive RFID tags, which track small items through the supply chain for customers such as Wal-Mart, might be a slow return on investment, that’s not the case for companies with high-value products in a closed-loop system, such as heathcare facilities and automotive manufacturers.

With this growth market, electrical contractors who haven’t run into fixed RFID reader systems soon will, therefore, it is imperative that ECs find education on this promising technology.

Active RFID solutions are not difficult to install. The wireless connection (which is much more common than wired) between the RFID reader and host computer significantly reduces labor time for installers. And the tight integration between software and hardware minimizes system configuration time. Perhaps more complex is knowing which solution is appropriate for an end-user and how to configure that solution.

One major question for active RFID users and vendors is in which direction the wireless communication system will go, and it is a question that the electrical contractor also may need to figure out. Sending the RF signal is only a part, since the data must travel from the RFID reader to the end-user’s data management system or an Internet-hosted server.

In addition, there are other ways for RFID data to be transmitted and other technologies linked to it. Real-time tracking systems, for example, show exactly where the device is located within a given area at all times. Vendors such as WhereNet, Santa Clara, Calif., and RF Code, Mesa, Ariz., provide such solutions.

Despite all this growth, one factor—barcoding—has delayed active RFID across all industries. Many companies have adopted a barcoding system in the past decade and are reluctant to take a leap into an altogether different technology. For that reason, RFID has taken off faster in some areas of Asia and Europe.

What about costs?

Location system needs vary, depending on the user, and the costs rise or fall, depending on the device’s sophistication.

The costs can vary widely. Savi Technology, Mountain View, Calif., has RFID tag/seals that cost about $100, but are regarded as worth the expense by governmental or large commercial shipping customers. On the other hand, some RFID tags now are small as a credit card and cost just a few dollars.

Midrange Wi-Fi active tags that come with a push button to send an alert or specialized information can cost about $60, a small price to pay for hospitals if they are tracking patients and can reuse the tags.

To best determine costs, hospital IT directors and facility managers have to decide how exacting the location system needs to be. Do they need to know in which room a device is stored, which cabinet or even which shelf of that cabinet?

“A lot of end-users just don’t have the education to make those decisions,” Liard said. “An IT director at the hospital can feel like a deer caught in the headlights,” especially when making specific and costly decisions about an RFID system. And in general, the budget is tight.

“They need a lot of bang for their buck,” Liard said. Luckily, vendors are offering a lot of innovation in their solutions, but for many industries, the cost still outweighs the potential usage.

“At the end of the day, the cost of tags means we’re not talking about RFID tags on a can of soup,” Liard said.

However, a $1,500 fuel pump can easily justify the expense of a $15 active battery-operated RFID tag or location device. “That kind of visibility for high-value items can work out to a strong return on investment,” Liard said.

Wireless RFID

One growth area in RFID is active solutions based on the wireless fidelity standard 80211. Aeroscout, San Mateo, Calif., focuses on these types of Wi-Fi solutions for active RFID. Aeroscout offers a Wi-Fi-based solution for RFID that is popular in healthcare applications. RFID data can be transmitted also with ultrawide band. The data can be managed over Internet servers hosted by either a third party or the user, or tied directly back to the end-user’s data management system.

“We find the desire for active RFID and Wi-Fi have both grown stronger as the benefit has become clear within the vendor market with acceptance of Wi-Fi as one of the primary modes for air interface methods,” said Josh Slobin, director of marketing at Aeroscout.

With Wi-Fi, host software runs on standard personal computers. The host software is a standard Windows application that runs under Windows ME, Windows 2000 or Windows XP.

“Wi-Fi-based active RFID is clearly not just a flash-in-the-pan solution,” Slobin said. He also sees a growing acceptance and education among customers regarding the value of active RFID as a distinct entity from passive RFID.

“Asset tracking has proven itself as the primary focus of the RFID industry,” Slobin said, adding that active RFID solutions are being installed all the time.

The use of Wi-Fi is likely to continue its growth since it already is in place in so many infrastructures.

“Wi-Fi is ubiquitous, so it just makes sense,” Slobin said.

Logistics on and off the port side

Savi Network LLC, a partnership between Savi Technology and Hutchison Port Holdings, is growing a network of ports worldwide. It already is gaining a majority of large ports in the United States that can track containers as they arrive in the port and as they leave. So far, 20 U.S. ports have installed the network, with 70 more online to install in the coming years, which accounts for about 80 percent of the world trade, said Mark Nelson, Savi director of corporate communications. Ports are building readers and site managers to capture data from tagged containers to the Savi SmartChain software system.

“We track high-value goods and hazardous materials,” Nelson said, and since the average shipping container carries goods at a value of $100,000, most commercial shipments qualify.

Savi has begun extending its network to European countries and Australia, all of whom can capture data from each other’s cargo as it travels. That data is then routed to the country that owns the cargo, providing visibility of shipments that previously was unavailable.

The use of active RFID in logistics management began with the Department of Defense but has since grown to the commercial market, Nelson said. Smaller agencies are beginning to see the advantage of such a system. Civilian agencies use RFID for disaster relief that allows the tracking of assets and people in the event of an emergency such as Hurricane Katrina, where equipment immediately could be located and routed where it needs to go. During Katrina, Nelson said, agencies lost the ability to monitor supplies after leaving depots. Medical supplies and buses were difficult to locate.

Savi, like other vendors, is seeing a growing interest in integrating other technologies to link data to the RFID system, such as biometrics, sensors and GPS locating systems, all tied to a common software platform.

“Our software platform can take data feeds from all these devices and turn it into information for greater decision making regarding the location and condition of shipments,” Nelson said. The tags, depending on the technology integrated into them, cost between $25 and $150, but can be used for five to seven years.

In support of the growing industry interest in RFID infrastructure, it is necessary for key decision-makers to understand the appropriate technology architecture for any given application and for the future expansion of that installation. There still is a critical shortage of RFID integration knowledge in the United States. Systems integrators and electrical contractors should be able to evaluate the suitability of RFID to improve existing business processes, recommend the optimal technology, including frequency and ISO standard, and assist in rollout. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.