While I was sleeping over the past few years, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology emerged, grew, and prospered. Oh sure, I'd heard of it, but I considered it nothing more than a bar code replacement. Boy, did I almost miss the revolution!
The U.S. Department of Defense and retail companies such as Wal-Mart and Target spearheaded RFID's inventory and logistics applications. But the applications have moved far beyond the realm of bar code replacement because the technology has progressed beyond passive tags. Now there are semi-active and active RFID tags, and other technologies have been added to the mix. Standards have developed too. Active RFID, it seems, is enabling a rich and profitable future in manufacturing and process automation for much more than inventory control and security.
For Chemical Processing
I was awakened to RFID's process automation applications by a recent press release about an agreement between a group at Texas A&M University Sensors and RFID Technologies Laboratory and Axcess International Inc. to work on applications developments in the chemical industry for active RFID devices integrated with temperature and chemical sensors. Axcess has patented its ActiveTag RFID tags that enable sensing of temperature, humidity, door status (open or closed), vibration, motion, radiation, and of chemical and biological agents.
Active RFID devices with programmable memory had great potential for industrial automation projects even before they carried sensors. Such devices are enabling detailed auto manufacturing work in progress (WIP) parts tracking at Ford and VW. The devices can be programmed on the fly with QA product information once an operation and test is completed.
The use of sensor-equipped active RFID tags for time-temperature tracking of cold-chain products such as frozen foods is already well-established and making headway in the market. Alvin Systems reported in October 2005 that low-cost, credit card-size RFID labels with embedded temperature sensors from German company KSW Microtec provide a cost-effective and efficient way for monitoring the condition of temperature-sensitive objects in cold chain operations. KSW's smart and active labels enable data logging, and the company's paper-thin battery in addition to standard functions such as reading, writing and protecting user data. The batteries have a life span of up to one year depending on the activity of the label.
More recently, the weblog RFID in Japan reported on Japanese companies involved in a program to provide monitors for premium Japanese sake (rice wine).
Beyond the Basics
Even the basic counting and location capabilities of passive RFID devices are being put to more sophisticated use. For example, Escort Memory Systems now offers its LRP-P972HTS tag for electronic and pharmaceutical WIP applications; it withstands temperatures to 185°C for prolonged periods of time.
A combination of bar codes, RFID, and GPS technologies is helping Dow Chemical track its product containers around the world for improved asset visibility, security, reduced inventories, and increased supply-chain efficiency. The company's track-and-trace strategy will allow it to locate all shipments at any given time, whether they are on trucks, railcars, or ships. Dow will offer details of its program and insights into its plan for automated identification technologies in a presentation titled "Case Study-Using Auto ID Technologies to Facilitate Track and Trace at Dow Chemical" during the RFID Live! 2006 meeting on May 2 in Las Vegas .
RFID resources and events are expanding almost as rapidly as the market for the technology. The Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility (AIM) has branched out with a separate Website covering RFID, which provides news and technology tidbits plus vendor directories, meetings calendars and many other useful resources such as primers, books, white papers, a glossary, links, and a dedicated newsletter. They even have a very slick RSS feed called RFID Insights.
To get started in this technology, check out the site's RFID-101.com, the FAQs page, and the glossary. Another tool for getting your feet wet is a kit such as the KSW-TempSens Starter Kit, a complete hardware and software solution, provides users a way to get hands-on familiar with this new technology.
Innovations On the Horizon
The applications for active RFID is just getting started and we should see some real innovations in pharmaceutical, food, brewing, and other process and storage situations where time and temperature conditions are critical. Defects due to out-of-tolerance conditions can be linked to specific packages or containers! The pharmaceutical industry has some very exciting approaches to validate the proper custody chain for expensive drugs and now a smarter way to simultaneously monitor and record the time-temperature history from manufacturing plant to the local pharmacist's shelf.