Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a method of identification using radio waves. It can be used for many applications, such as access control, trafficking, etc., but what sets it apart from other technologies is it is a contactless method of identification. RFID users do not need to swipe a card or enter a password. When systems use RFID, users need only have the RFID transponder on their person.

It is a booming market, and to predict where it is headed next, one must first understand where it has been.

“Five years ago, the RFID industry was still debating the standards to which our products would be built. Products from RFID vendors often were not compatible and provided varying levels of performance. RFID industry standards, which are now in a second generation, are now very stable. This has enabled a strong ecosystem of companies that build RFID solutions to develop. In addition, it has made it more reasonable for companies to invest in RFID solutions for their business problems,” said Chris Schaefer, director, RFID Product Marketing, Motorola Enterprise Mobility.

According to Schaefer, RFID products have moved way beyond fixed readers and portals, which were the basis of the initial RFID implementations. Numerous form factors have been developed which help RFID solutions fit into common business processes.

“In this way, RFID is becoming more and more ubiquitous, providing a non-intrusive solution that anyone can use,” he said. And, of course, further development means it’s becoming more of a desirable technology.

A new era

Allan Goulbourne, Technical Support Manager, Texas Instruments RFID Systems, said the second era of RFID began with the advent of UHF transponder systems. According to him, low-frequency products originally made things possible that previously were not. In fact, Goulbourne said low-frequency RFID (LF RFID) is in use in places many may never have even dreamed about. For example, at Singapore’s Underwater World, fish are tagged with LF RFID, and antennas located throughout the facility read the signals when the fish swim by and automatically display information on that particular fish. Even farmers supplying fast food chains in the USA use LF RFID tags for traceability when sourcing beef from countries such as Botswana. At the Alton Towers theme park in England, RFID tags placed under the boats of the Willy Wonka boat ride trigger both audio and animation. These more rugged versions of RFID tags have allowed RFID to be used in places that were too harsh before. They can even withstand getting wet.

“With the advent of UHF, tags can now to be read at longer distances,” Goulbourne said. “This is going to regenerate the market and allow for new applications, such as mass ticketing and anticounterfeiting.” Some interesting applications that Goulbourne described are far beyond the original pallet tracking that Wal-Mart did, which first put RFID on the mass media map. Victorinox, maker of the famous Swiss Army Knife, tags items to monitor the market for gray goods movement, and pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer uses RFID to battle drug counterfeiting.

RFID is even being used in Europe to release bicycles from racks and allow users to return them later. It seems that this next generation is taking the original, base premises and expanding it to uses that were stuck in manual processes. But then again, that is the ultimate benefit of RFID: automation.

“The next big thing on the horizon is near field communications,” Goulbourne said. “RFID technology for short-range solutions, such as making payments for something.” Goulbourne said, in the future, cell phones may be near-field enabled to work as transponders, and a house that is enabled would allow the user in. Another scenario would be the same person visiting a mall, they would present their cell phone in front of a special poster and the poster would read the cell phone and download information and even coupons. This next generation of cell phones with RFID ability would be both readers and responders. Goulbourne said there are trials for this usage already in place, and he said this type of phone usage could be used for mass transit ticketing, as well.

Goulbourne said the present RFID applications are ones that need to be installed by specialists, but he also said, “They are in short supply. There has to be someone to do the installation, and electrical contractors are required to provide the power to the readers.” The other reason RFID is becoming increasingly relevant to contractors is that it is transitioning to a technology that is being used more frequently in building management and access control, which are two other key areas where contractors operate.

“As convergence continues, RFID will continue to become part of a networked world, where RFID information can be transmitted in real-time across wireless networks, becoming a core piece of infrastructure that is incorporated into business processes. In addition, form factors will continue to evolve, becoming more compact and offering more user friendly options that are increasingly tailored to specific workplace roles,” Schaefer said. His point is relevant to contractors who function within the built and networked world and have had great success in doing so, which helps explain why RFID continues to be on the ‘need to understand’ list.

RFID in the data center

Frank Lanza, Hewlett-Packard (HP) worldwide director for RFID in the company’s Technology Solutions Group explained where RFID stands today by discussing a new initiative of HP’s that brings RFID to even more of the mainstream. He said, within data centers, which are hotbeds of assets, there has been rising concern over security of those assets.

“How can you inventory assets in a large data center when things are being moved around and they have data on them?” Lanza asked?

This is one such question that prompted HP to respond to escalating customer demand with what they call “HP RFID Factory Express Standard Service” and “HP RFID Factory Express Custom Service.” The two are different solutions that build upon one another. HP RFID Factory Express Standard Service is preinstalled second generation RFID tags on HP factory-built servers, storage devices and rack enclosures, whereas the Custom Service option allows for those preinstalled tags to be used for what they were intended: full asset tracking with customized RFID tag placement and additional RFID services from HP that transmit RFID tracking information through readers and other technology from the factory to the customer’s data center.

HP tags assets before they leave the manufacturing centers, meaning new equipment is RFID enabled when the servers and storage devices are built in the factory, and making the decision to use such a technology is a big first step. This process eliminates that decision as the tags are preinstalled.

Lanza explained, since both tag and reader costs have decreased, the return on investment is much more attractive now than in the past. Lanza also said contractors fit right into the equation, as power feeds for readers are mandatory, and overall data center cabling and wiring also fits into these more comprehensive solutions.

“We are seeing more and more such things as becoming roles for electrical contractors versus the past,” Lanza said.

“RFID enables businesses to manage and track workplace assets in an easy to implement, non-intrusive way. In doing so, the business benefits can be enormous. Every year, businesses, no matter what their focus, lose millions of dollars because they use archaic systems (handwritten logs, manual entries in spreadsheets) to track the assets that drive their business. RFID eliminates the potential for human error, automating this process, and in doing so, drastically reducing the loss of these assets. These assets can be anything from cables to electrical boxes to high value tools. Every business, including electrical contractors, can benefit,” Schaefer said.

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.