This post was last updated on August 5th, 2021 at 02:59 pm
RFID Tracking & Tags
Keep track of your assets with RFID technology
RFID can be used to track assets across different environments, ranging from tools and laptops to components, stillages and large items of equipment. However it is one of a number of different tracking technologies, each with their own different capabilities and cost implications.
So where does RFID fit in and what is it best suited for? Here we will look at the different technologies, and the typical applications for each.
3 types of tracking systems
With today’s technology, it is possible to track anything anywhere across the globe. From barcodes on parcels to leisure passes using RFID technology and GPS systems on high-value cars, tracking systems are all around us. There are three main types of systems:
Barcodes can be found on almost every parcel that is delivered and are also widely used across the retail and leisure industries. Barcodes are low cost – a printed label is cheap enough to throw away once the item is delivered or paid for at the supermarket till. Therefore for very low-value items, or where cost is a key factor, barcodes are often chosen and indeed in many cases, they are sufficient to do the job.
However barcodes require a great deal of human interaction. Take a parcel, for example – it is scanned at the collection point, then when it is checked in and out of the depot, at the distribution hub, when it is loaded onto the van for delivery and again on arrival, when the driver will normally also request a signature or take a photo as proof of delivery. Barcodes also have to be correctly positioned to be read and this tends to be a manual task.
Barcodes can track an item from point to point – both sender and receiver can track a parcel through the use of a tracking number and online portal to see where it is in the distribution chain – but the tracking is not constant as would be the case with a vehicle tracker.
RFID offers significant benefits over barcodes, in particular in allowing much higher levels of automation. RFID tags can be read by scanners at fixed points and can automatically track items from one point to another within a defined geographic space, for example components moving through a factory or or goods in a warehouse.
RFID tags can be read from a distance, and there does not have to have a clear line of site between the tag and the reader. One of the main advantages is that they can be read in bulk from a single scan whereas barcodes need to be scanned individually. Unlike barcodes, RFID can also operate in hostile environments, for example where the tag may be contaminated by dirt and grease or may be subjected to extreme temperatures.
While RFID is more expensive than barcodes, tags can cost as little as a few pence each. In many cases the extra cost will be more than justified by the benefits of automating processes, improving the quality of management information and saving time.
3. GPS systems
GPS (Global Positioning System) is a satellite-based technology that can track items continuously over a wide geographic area, with car tracking systems being a good example. GPS tracking systems typically cost anything from £50 to over £300, plus any additional costs from the service provider, therefore they can only be justified in the case of expensive assets such as a car or high-value equipment.
GPS-based systems also have limitations for use in indoor settings such as in an airport, shopping centre or hospital because the signal may not penetrate the building or may be blocked by structural features.
In some cases, different tags can be used on the same item – so a vehicle may have a GPS tracking system for use on the road but may also have an RFID tag which can be detected as it approaches the company premises. The barrier will then be automatically raised to allow access to the goods yard.
Using tags as part of a tracking system
Whichever of these three technologies you use, tracking will also rely on a computer system of some kind to interpret the information and reproduce it in an easy-to-understand format. In each case, the principle is the same – the barcode or electronic tag contains a reference to identify the item, and the computer will keep an electronic record of its movements.
Sometimes the information on the tag will be combined with other information – such as ambient temperature, grid reference or pressure – to provide additional detail but it will depend on the configuration of the tag or the device that it is communicating with. For example, an electronic device on a vehicle might be capable of transmitting its OS grid reference in the way a mobile phone can and the computer can then combine this data with other information and display it as part of a web page.
Choosing the right tracking technology: factors to consider
Here are some of the factors to consider when selecting a technology:
Are individual items being tracked or a batch?
If you need to track individual items, for example parcels going to different addresses, then a unique reference will be required for each. If it is sufficient to know the quantities, for example for components or materials being issued as part of a bill of materials, one tag will be sufficient for the entire batch.
Is it a large number of items and how valuable are they?
A logistics firm handling millions of parcels each week will need a cheap method of identification, in this case barcodes. More expensive assets justify a higher-priced tracking system.
What level of automation is required?
If the company has invested in an automated factory or warehouse, then identification needs to be automatic as well. It makes no sense to interrupt the procedure for someone to manually read a barcode so RFID is a better choice than barcodes.
What is the industry standard?
What do others in the industry use and what standards do you need to comply with? Ultra High Frequency RFID has an international standard – ECP global Gen2 (ISO 18000-63), effectively futureproofing the technology. However if one technology is widely used – for example, in the retail and transport industries which use barcoding globally – it may not be possible to introduce another unless it was to happen on a very large scale.
What geographic area do you want to track it over?
Within a warehouse or factory items can be tracked automatically using RFID by recording when they pass a particular point. Nodes can be set up in a grid pattern to determine the precise location of an entity. Indeed, GPS can be problematic in an indoor setting because of the problem of getting a strong signal. However if an item is moving outside a pre-defined geographic area then some form of satellite or GPS capability will be required.
What is the business case?
With any tracking system there will be a cost involved so it has to be justified by potential savings. For example, if a component is not available when and where required during the manufacturing process, it could halt the entire production line which could be very costly.
What type of environment is it operating in?
Are there many metallic surfaces? What material will the tag will be mounted on? Will it be contaminated by dirt and grease, does it need to withstand extreme temperatures or exposure to chemicals? Barcode labels are not suitable for more demanding conditions, however specialist RFID tags are available to suit almost any environment.
CoreRFID is always pleased to discuss requirements and make some initial recommendations. Once the most likely product has been selected, we recommend that initial tests are carried out to ensure the tags can be read in the different locations that they will be passing, followed by a proof of concept project to trial the system from the point at which an asset begins its journey through to the final destination. Read more about proof of concept projects here.
What assets do you need to track?
Here are some of the most common applications for RFID tracking systems:
Managing containers is important in the chemical industry for safety reasons. RFID systems allow IBCs to be checked in and out and stocks to be easily audited.