RFID in the service of logistics
Radio frequency technology has experienced exponential growth in recent years as companies have realised the benefits and possibilities it offers.
What is RFID technology?
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a technology that emerged in World War II and is increasingly present in everyday life. RFID is the automatic process of identifying objects by exchanging data via electromagnetic waves between two specified points:
- The transmitter or central control unit.
- The product at item, grouping or pallet level to be plotted.
So what is it to identify? Assigning codes to goods and linking that code to information associated with those goods. As the world of RFID is a vast one, in this article we will focus on passive RFID technology, which, unlike active RFID, uses tags that do not have their own power source (battery). They have no energy autonomy and the RFID device is usually small in size. Their electrical current is activated when we bring an RFID reader close to them, to which they generate a response. There are several frequencies within the passive RFID world. The main ones are shown below:
- LF (low frequency): operate in the 125 to 134 kHz band. The low frequency is suitable for applications requiring small amounts of data to be read and for small distances. They penetrate materials well (woven water, wool), use very small antennas with coils and is a highly developed technology. On the other hand, it does not penetrate or transmit on metallic materials, it filters small amounts of data, the reading speed is slow, the reading range is minimal and the identifiers are expensive. This frequency is typically used for animal identification.
- HF/NFC (high frequency/near field communication): operate in the 13.56Mhz band. Suitable for applications requiring small amount of data to be read and for small distances. Penetrates well into fabrics and water, simple antenna design and reasonable cost, transfer rate higher than 134 KHz, small tag size. On the other hand, there are differences in supported powers in different countries, no metal penetration, relatively large antennas and tags, short read range (up to about 10cms). Within this range there is NFC technology, which is increasingly developed and integrated with most mobile phones. Access cards usually use HF technology.
- UHF (ultra high frequency): operate in the 860 to 915Mhz band. Suitable for applications requiring longer transmission distances than the previous bands, while keeping tag costs to a minimum. The size of the tag is relatively small, high data transfer, possibility of using directional antennas, reading distances up to 8 metres. On the other hand, there are signal absorption problems in aqueous environments and it does not penetrate metals. This is the range we will focus on and the range of tags manufactured by Trace ID.
Source: Impinj. Wave amplitude and time with their respective frequencies.
How a passive UHF RFID system works
At the device level, three elements are indispensable: the UHF RFID tag, the antenna and the reader. The UHF tag is attached to a product, whether it is hooked, sewn, pinned, etc. When the tag passes through the electromagnetic field of the antenna, it is activated and collects information from its chip. This information is bounced back to the antenna and the antenna transmits it to the reader. This “code” is then processed to give logical information that is usually displayed on screens/tablets. For all of this to work, something fundamental is needed: middleware software development to create that layer between logical data and having truly usable information/data. Without this layer, all data received would not logically correspond to anything.
Differences between RFID and barcodes
One of the million dollar questions. Although different, the two technologies can be perfectly complementary. What does passive UHF RFID technology offer that barcodes cannot?
- No human intervention is required as it can be automated.
- The readings are multiple and very fast.
- Each tag is individually identified.
- They have the capacity to store information.
- They can be re-recorded an infinite number of times.
- They have a high degree of security.
- Real-time inventory (fixed points).
- Inventorying in minutes (handheld PDA).
- Automated / unassisted update.
- Elimination of human error.
- Prevention of hidden inventory.
- Detection of stock deviations.
- Reduction of theft.
- Process parameterisation.
What Trace ID does
Since 2007 Trace ID has been the leading RFID tag manufacturing company in Spain. With its own production structure (the only one in Spain), it has the capacity to customise each product and offer tailor-made solutions. With state-of-the-art Muhlbauer bonding (insertion of the chip into the antenna) and converting (conversion into a label according to the customer’s requirements) machinery, it can adapt to the demands of a constantly expanding market. It has its own R&D team capable of designing specific antennas for certain projects that require a certain degree of complexity.
Source : Trace ID. Fonctionnement d’un système RFID UHF passif.
RFID technology in logistics processes
RFID solutions for logistics cover a broad spectrum of usability. They can be found in almost all business processes. For example, from tracking returnable transport units in the supply chain to retail inventory management. The automatic control of logistics is one of the main challenges today and RFID technology is an essential tool for this.
Automated management with RFID technology has the ability to significantly improve global logistics chains. In addition, it also increases the overall efficiency of identification processes. Major retailers and their suppliers are already tagging pallets, crates and other returnable transport units (RTUs) such as plastic crates used for fresh food. On the other hand, logistics is also the control of retailers’ inventories. This is why logistics is so broad and complex. As mentioned above, the definition of logistics brings together many business processes. Below, you can find the main benefits of automatic logistics control with RFID technology.
• For manufacturers: better customer service, process optimisation, faster invoicing, optimisation of shipping documents.
• For distributors: improved shipping accuracy, faster and more reliable deliveries, better traceability, greater cost savings.
• For retailers: faster processes, fewer stock-outs, cost savings, better customer service, security.
In Spain, 52% of the RFID tags consumed are used in RFID systems for logistics. The rest are applied in access control, machinery and consumables control in the health and hospitality industry, product security in retail businesses, sports and production process timing, or in improving the end customer experience, among others. In addition, RFID tags can meet a variety of traceability, security and marketing needs.
Logistics has been no stranger to the digital transformation that has redefined our society over the last two decades, from individuals to organisations. In some ways, change has been generated as defensive and adaptive strategies to changes in consumer behaviour, changes in international communications or changes in manufacturing processes. However, it has proved to be a powerful generator of opportunities. Opportunities for greater efficiency and also for greater profits, both of which imply greater competitiveness for the company. A key case in point is ecommerce.
Faced with the massive increase in transactions in the digital age, logistics has risen to the challenge by becoming faster, more secure, more reliable, more flexible, and also more cost-effective. These changes have been made possible in large part by the adoption of new technologies and systems such as RFID, Block Chain, Big Data, CRM and ERP.
In the future, it will be rare if any company has not yet implemented RFID technology in one of its processes.