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RFID system design: 7 key factors for success

RFID is now a multi-billion pound industry and the technology is used in almost every industry. There is an enormous range of products from all parts of the world that are readily available online.

However businesses trying to implement the technology have varying degrees of success and all too often are left with a pile of gadgetry they cannot deploy. We see many blue-chip companies which have unopened boxes of tags and readers destined for the re-cycling bin. So what steps can be taken to prevent a new project becoming an expensive failure?

Here are seven factors that need to be considered for a successful RFID system design:

1. What is the objective?

Amazingly many companies initiate an IT project without stating clearly what they are attempting to achieve. If the technology works, that is deemed to be good enough – however often there is no clear way to measure success or failure.

Businesses would do well to follow the example of a leading UK outsourcing company. They set out the objectives as part of the justification for the investment, then review the project at key milestones during the implementation and live running.

So for example if one of these objectives was to save money, the costs are analysed before and after and then compared to see if the anticipated savings had been made. How many projects are subjected to this scrutiny? Not many in my experience.

2. Is RFID the right technology?

RFID is a means of identifying an entity but there are other technologies which do the same thing. Barcodes and QR Codes are widely used and lower cost than RFID but they will not work in all cases. This article which explains more about the difference between them and may help when deciding which to route to take.

3. What type of RFID do we need?

This is where things become more tricky as there are so many RFID products available. Firstly, there is the base type which can be low frequency, high frequency or ultra-high frequency. The first two options will work if the reader is placed in very close proximity to the tag. The third, which is more widely used these days, will enable the tag to be read at distance of up to about 20m.

Then there are passive tags which take the power source from the reader, or active tags which have their own battery power source and are able to transmit accurately over greater distance.

The environment is also crucial to the successful operation of RFID. For example if there is a high level of metallic content the signal will be reflected. The surface on which the tags will be mounted is particularly important – if it is metallic, the signal will be amplified and may not be directed back to the reader; if it is absorbent, the signal will be weakened and a different type of antenna may be required to boost it.

There may be other equipment in the vicinity that will interfere with the RFID signals, such as a security alarm system which uses radio signals to detect movement. It may be that RFID is the wrong ID technology altogether. There are new ID technologies emerging that do not use radio signals, for example, Bluetooth, which can also be used to identify the precise location of an entity.

4. Which brand should we choose?

Once the most appropriate technology has been identified, it is then a case of finding the best brand. For simple applications such as key fobs or cards, most products will work. But for more specific applications, where the item is moving or located in a hostile environment such as a building site, selecting the right product is crucial. There is a myriad of manufacturers out there, especially in the Far East, and in-depth knowledge of the market is essential to achieve a reliable deployment.

5. How can we test the concept?

Having selected the most appropriate technology, the next step is to test it in the live environment. In a normal scenario the majority of systems will pass and it is only when subjected to abnormal circumstances that the technology is really tested. A recent example of this arose when tagging parcels of waste material destined for an incinerator in a power plant. The first tests were carried out on parcels that were neatly packed with the tags not obscured and this worked fine. When subjected to a live environment, the parcels would collapse in places which obscured the tags from the reader and the results were considerably degraded.

Therefore it is important to test under the worst-case scenario and deliberately try to break it! Switch on every device and network possible to create interference, and let the end users (who will be working in the same location) operate with the RFID set-up in place. If possible test it over a long period of time to ensure the performance of the tags does not degrade with use.

Also, if the tags need to be removed from the item they are attached to, ensure that this is possible without causing damage. Also check that the method of attachment – whether it is adhesive, rivets or screws – will hold the tag securely in place.

This is just a few examples of the tests. There are many more and it is important that this stage of the project is carried out thoroughly, to prevent an expensive deployment which fails.

6. How will it integrate with other systems?

If the RFID project needs to integrate with other systems, it is vital that the integration methodology is determined at the outset and included in tests. Also consider where the data is held. It is normally recommended that the data is held in a database and the RFID tag links to this, but the tag may hold additional data (for example on status).

Then the mechanics of how data is exchanged needs to be determined. This could be as simple as a batch transfer such as a CSV file into a spreadsheet or an interactive process where data is updated dynamically. Manufacturers and integrators often have software development kits (SDKs) which will assist in reading or writing to/from a tag and there may also be an API available if one of the systems is widely used, for example with an ERP system.

7. How do we measure success?

Finally when everything is complete, don’t just assume that if the technology works, the project is a success! Always be sure to compare the objectives against the results.

A successful RFID project involves a lot more than buying a bunch of tags and readers and hoping they will all work. The industry is littered with horror stories and expensive, resource-hungry failures. It is always best go to a specialist who understands the nuances of the technology.

To discuss your requirements please contact our specialist team manager Richard Harrison on 0845 071 0985 or email r.harrison@corerfid.com.