A Contractor's Guide to RFID

By Kellie K. Speed | Sep 15, 2006
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What it can do for your bottom line


RADIO FREQUENCY IDENTIFICATION (RFID) tag technology debuted years ago, offering hands-free asset protection, vehicle identification and personnel tracking. Today, most RFID readers are hard-wired to the local area network (LAN) using Ethernet. The readers necessary for transmitting information between RFID tags and a back-end system require constant, reliable power to operate continuously. As a result, the technology’s usage has been steadily increasing and now presents numerous opportunities for electrical contractors to increase their revenue stream.

“If an electrical contractor is looking at installing electrical devices such as lighting, I would think RFID technology would present a great opportunity to them,” said Page Siplon, executive director of Maritime Logistics Innovation Center, Savannah, Ga. “It is important for the contractor to be certified in this technology and be knowledgeable about it so they can make suggestions to their customers. As a result, this will put them at an advantage over their competition.”

What about it?

An RFID system comprises a tag, consisting of a microchip with antenna, and a reader, with an antenna that sends out electromagnetic waves. Active RFID tags have their own internal power source and a large area of range with long-life batteries.

“There is a lot of different technology that makes up RFID,” Siplon said. “If a company is looking at replacing bar codes, then you could simply use one RFID tag per box if it stays within the supply chain. That would not be a big deal, but if it is being used for inventory control, then the project becomes more complicated with technology required, such as new antennas and power supplies. It then becomes not just a simple sticker, but actually a part of the box.”

The purpose of an RFID system is to enable data to be transmitted by the tag’s mobile device, which is then scanned and processed by a reader. The data transmitted by the tag can be varied and may provide identification information or location about the product being tagged.

Low-frequency tags use less power and are better able to penetrate nonmetallic substances. High-frequency tags work better on objects made of metal. Some companies are combining RFID tags with sensors that detect and record temperature, movement and even radiation.

“RFID technology is the wave of the future,” Siplon said. “There are studies now being conducted to see how RFID technology could be incorporated with small chips and dust. The technology would be micro-size tags inside the dust and it could be sprinkled on vehicles or wherever someone wants. This is where RFID is heading. It eliminates the complexity of the technology. We’re nearly there; it’s just becoming more sophisticated.”

RFID versus bar codes

The debate over whether RFID or bar codes is the better technology continues. Bar code scans require a reader to line up a bar code for the device to actually read it. RFID, on the other hand, does not require that same line of sight.

“We have worked on parking garages in the Seattle area using RFID technology,” said Doug Crane, regional sales manager/ senior account executive for ID Micro of Tacoma, Wash. “It offers a faster throughput allowing cars to get in and out of the garage quicker and easier than ever before. Customers used to use a proximity card where they would drive up to a terminal, stop and find the card reader, roll down the window and then swipe the card. RFID technology has changed all that as the technology can be read from just a few feet to in excess of 30 feet. So, when a vehicle approaches, there is no need to stop. This technology has increased throughput, convenience and security offering a faster alternative.”

RFID limitations

Of course, there are limitations to RFID tags and bar codes. RFID tags can only be read as long as they are within a specified range. Bar codes cannot be read if a label is ripped or misplaced. As a result, there is no way for a user to scan the specific item. Implemented along with a bar code system, RFID offers added convenience, as employees can scan items that contain an RFID tag without having to remove them from its holding case.

“Gate automation is a huge opportunity as well,” Crane said. “The Seattle airport uses our technology with shuttles between lots to the airport. The tags are used to trigger the gauge from up to 70 feet away. The installer can also adjust each read zone to tailor a customer’s requirements. For higher security applications, IDmicro’s anti-tamper tag prevents unauthorized use of a stolen tag. Once the tag is adhered to the intended mounting surface, all unique information is cleared if the tag is removed rendering the tag useless to the would-be thief.”

However, in the RFID system scenario, specific objects are equipped with a small tag that contains a transponder with a digital memory chip assigned with an electronic product code. The antenna emits a signal activating the RFID tag so it can read and write data to it. Overall, RFID will provide an even higher level of security.

The future of RFID technology


“RFID is a leading edge technology but it has been around for decades,” Crane said. “Many people seem to think it’s a new technology, but it has actually had major refinements over the years.”

Tool-management systems have become easier to use as many software interfaces have changed dramatically and designs are more intelligent. Hardware has become more powerful as well, allowing developers to create applications designed for handheld units.

Wireless technologies enable these handheld scanners to communicate back to the master database from anywhere there is a wireless signal. As a result, RFID tags are also in an ideal position to become the most widely used type of wireless units.

“Over the next five to 10 years, RFID technology is expected to grow exponentially,” Crane said. “There are numerous opportunities here for electrical contractors to put additional money into their pocket. With additional security and features for the parking garage alone, we have seen more opportunities for installers. Soon enough, everyone will have this technology as it establishes itself as a market leader.”

Wireless tracking

Wireless tracking is another increased growth area and one that would benefit electrical contractors. Larger companies are even using wireless surveillance over the Internet. In farming applications, RFID systems are now being used to manage livestock, animal products and for tracking pets.

The only controversy surrounding the RFID product seems to be lack of privacy and the ability to track a person’s habits. For the most part, more companies are looking at these wireless systems to move beyond single-niche and retrofit applications to entire solutions. In new commercial construction, building owners are using all wireless systems. Hard-wired card access systems can cost up to $5,000 per door, including labor and security, but with wireless systems, owners are now saving up to 30 percent off that cost.

Wireless systems have essentially progressed beyond solutions where they were used sporadically in an installation. Whole system installations are now fully integrated with other hardware and software for a total systems approach. It is also more cost effective to create a wireless project than hard-wiring, so building owners are also receiving a cost benefit as well.

As a result, when looking at the total cost of hard-wiring buildings and devices versus installing wireless access control, RFID technology puts the electrical contractor at a single cost advantage, especially when it comes to figuring in labor costs.   EC

SPEED is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or [email protected].


About The Author

Kellie Speed is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or [email protected].





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