RFID: Sensing and monitoring are the next wave
One of the emerging stories in the RFID market is the convergence of technologies around RFID. “Sensing and monitoring is beginning to take hold,” says Drew Nathanson, director of research operations for VDC Research Group (http://www.vdcresearch.com), the Massachusetts based technology research firm.
In these applications, the RFID tag is doing more than just keeping track of the location of an asset in real time; it is also now capable of managing and monitoring the status of assets that are critical to operating a business, including the environmental operating and storage conditions as well as how effectively that asset is being utilized.
Right now, Nathanson says the most common application in the field combines a temperature sensor with an RFID tag. The early adopters have been industries like fresh produce and chemical that transport temperature-sensitive products. “But, there is a range of sensor technology beginning to emerge that will allow you to monitor moisture and humidity levels, shock, PH levels and volatile emissions or gases,” Nathanson says.
For example, in the commercial aerospace industry one maintenance provider uses sensors to track the temperature and humidity in storage areas where canisters and other sensitive parts are stored. Instead of sending in a technician to get a status update, the system receives a constant flow of data. If the temperature or humidity deviates beyond a safe operating range, the system sends a real-time alert so that it can be addressed.
As with the overall adoption of RFID, making this possible are lower tag prices and more robust software. “An active tag with an integrated temperature sensor used to be $50 and it’s now $20 in volume,” Nathanson says. “If you use a passive tag with a printed battery or a passive tag that wakes up the sensor when it’s read by a reader, you can get the price of a to $2 or less.”
In addition to monitoring conditions, the information being collected by these systems can be tied to business intelligence and analytics software to help identify bottlenecks in processes, to keep a repair process on track by managing an asset and to track whether scheduled maintenance or calibration was performed on a tool or part so that it’s ready to be used when it’s needed.
For example, the asset management system of one manufacturer using RFID is tied to the company’s ERP system. It keeps track of hot parts that are needed in the facility to complete jobs. When a hot part is read by an RFID reader at the receiving dock, the system automatically directs it to the workstation where it’s needed.
“As companies get familiar with the technology, there’s a crossing of value chains,” says Nathanson. “The system is implemented to track inventory. But there’s also a value chain for a component going into a finished product. That extends the investment in the RFID solution.”