Over the last several years, tracking and tracing the movement of goods across supply chains has been dominated by radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that help stakeholders identify product locations in real-time. These conventional RFIDs are usually involved with minimal fixed infrastructure – like portals, tunnels around conveyor belts, or on handheld solutions used by employees to scan areas of interest within warehouses.
RF Controls, an asset-tracking solutions provider, has developed a real-time location system of passive RFID tags that can work without a battery, thereby exponentially improving the usability of the tags. “Our battery-free tags have the ability to scan an area with high speed, over long distances and with high accuracy. The particular protocol we use is called the RAIN RFID,” said Adrian Turchet, senior vice president of strategy at RF Controls.
Unlike traditional RFIDs, RF Controls provides a complete overhead solution, illuminating a room with radio frequency waves that allow people to identify a tag with one-foot location accuracy from anywhere inside the building. Turchet explained that a “big component” of RF Controls’ real-time locating system (RTLS) is built around the concept of last known location.
“Last known location is important in cases where the tag goes inside of a metal box or any area where radio waves are unable to enter. In such a situation, we could get the read from the tag about two feet before it goes into the metal shelving,” said Turchet. In essence, the last known location helps in ascertaining the real-time location of a tag, even when the signals cannot reach due to barriers.
One of the biggest deployments of RF Controls’ tags is in a cross-docking facility, where the ceiling is high with wide open spaces within its enclosure. “The simple equation to understand the square feet we can cover with an antenna is – ceiling height squared times four. So if you’ve got a 30-foot high ceiling and you’ve got one antenna, you can cover 3,600-square feet of space,” said Turchet.
The data gathered from the passive RFID tags can be run through machine-learning algorithms to create insights for stakeholders, especially the warehouses, that can improve their operational efficiency. “We’re effectively a massive firehose of data. Imagine our antennas constantly reporting the X, Y locations of a tag, on potentially millions of tags within a very large facility. That’s a lot of data,” said Turchet.
And it is in this juncture that software companies can play a crucial part in extending the possibilities of a passive RFID tag system like that of RF Controls. Graham Fenton, the managing director of Codegate, a U.K.-based software company for tracking solutions, spoke of how the cost of integrating RFID tags with user systems was an expensive process, and how every system was unique with different back-end formats.
“At the moment, most of the companies are working with legacy systems of one type or the other. We’ve got to do a bit of work to get information in the right format into their systems. If you look at the cost per square foot for implementing a solution that gives you the ability to track all passive tags over a particular area, I think RF Controls will probably be the cheapest,” said Fenton. This reduction in costs is primarily because the passive RFID tags do not need energy from batteries to transmit data, making them very resourceful. This apart, constant innovation and economies of scale have also brought the price of tags from a cost of several dollars to a few pennies.
“There are several different types of ultra-high frequency (UHF) type RFIDs that all use batteries, making them very expensive. Even though the infrastructure costs are quite low in most cases, by the time you add the cost of the tags, it ends up being massively more expensive than the RF Controls system,” said Fenton.
Turchet spoke on the extensive list of items that could be tagged within a warehouse or a manufacturing floor. For example, helmets, safety vests, toolboxes and tools, ladders, forklifts, and even the pallets themselves can be tagged. RF Controls enables tagging all these items via its passive RFIDs, with the management holding on to the tags permanently without ever needing to replace batteries.
“We are a technology that can help unlock the high ceiling opportunity. If you’ve got a 44-foot high ceiling, then our passive RFID tags can provide true wall-to-wall visibility within a production line. On the floor, they can layer on new use cases, change processes and can test various types of tags on different assets,” said Turchet. “Ultimately, you have a more flexible operation, and eliminate the need for training somebody on a handheld scanner to scan for tags.”