Identifying new applications for rfid devices

4 min read

The market for rf identification (rfid) devices is exploding. Active and passive tags are appearing in our cars, clothes, food packaging and luxury goods – even on our bodies – as well as being used throughout the manufacturing, processing, transport and logistics sectors.

But rfid is not new, having been used widely for more than a decade. Sales in 2011 are expected to pass $6billion and to grow at 30% a year over the next three years. So why is demand booming? Gert Jorgensen, vp of sales and marketing for Danish rfid asic designer Delta, said: "One of the key technology drivers is the ability to connect to the internet via wireless sensor networks to see the data." Meanwhile, for many applications, the true potential of rfid is just being recognised. Easy internet access and easily understandable current and historical data collected by the tag is attractive and can help provide documentation and proof of compliance to standards. Wireless sensor networks can trigger alarms if preset parameters are exceeded, displaying or sending out text messages. Such features have changed the market's perceptions of the value of rfid tagging and changed the return on investment equations. Major growth is being seen in the verification of authenticity or provenance of products on sale. Jorgensen gave the example of a French wine producer selling to China, where unscrupulous middlemen are refilling bottles with a cheap substitute, then recorking and selling them on. Similar scams have been reported with meat products and Chinese medicines. The solution proposed by Delta for its French customer is to put an rfid tag in the cork at source so its origins can be identified at the point of sale. Similar solutions are being implemented worldwide to foil the counterfeiters of designer label clothing and other big ticket luxury goods. Factory automation is taking greater advantage of rfid tags, incorporating their use in lean (just in time) manufacturing and six sigma quality programmes, while extending their use through the supply chain, cutting inventory and waste. Meanwhile, in the medical sector, tags can be effective in monitoring elderly people, raising the alarm to carers if they wander too far. Combined with GPS technology, they are enhancing emergency call pendants worn by the elderly or disabled, providing location information with the call for help facility. The same technology is being used in farming to keep tabs on animals, allowing fewer people to monitor larger herds and flocks. Jorgensen reports that labour unions and health and safety authorities are investing in rfid tags, both for people and equipment. There is growing concern about the use of unauthorised and untrained labour. Now, workers can carry an rfid card that controls access to secure areas on a building site or processing plant, for example. Tools, plant and equipment can be tagged so they can be operated only by those workers who have been trained in their use. But the most significant trend driving the take up of this technology is the incorporation of near field communication (NFC) in mobile digital devices. NFC enabled phones will become tag readers, enabling a wealth of new applications, such as smart posters and labelling. Plus they are set to replace some existing card applications, such as access control, ticketing, fidelity cards and, eventually, some payment cards. Combining sensors The combination of rfid with sensors is another major market driver. In healthcare, rfid tags embedded in simple plasters are being used to monitor parameters such as heart rate, blood sugar levels and patient temperature while they continue their daily routine, rather than them visiting a hospital. In the fitness market, tags are increasingly being used on equipment and athletes, to count calories burned and monitor improvements in fitness levels. When installed as part of an internet enabled sensor network, rfid tags can be effectively used in infrastructure systems, such as street lighting or transport networks, to provide additional services such as environmental monitoring. The combination of tagging and temperature monitoring is proving a winner in the fresh food supply chain and in medical applications, for example, the storage and transportation of blood products and donor organs. Getting the right product to the right place at the right time can be a life saver. Security and privacy Jorgenson believs one of the critical technology challenges is security. "Not every reader should be able to read every tag," he explained. Privacy protection, preventing unauthorised access to the data stored in the tag, is one aspect; particularly important in medical and healthcare applications. The tag needs to be secured not only to prevent hacking of data, but also to prevent the tag itself from being cloned. Another emerging feature is the ability to switch the tag to silent, for example, when a product is sold to the end user. It can be reactivated by the purchaser later if it is sold on, to prove it is genuine. Silent rfid tags can be embedded in critical components, perhaps to deter or detect theft in the supply chain, or to prove, if necessary, that genuine or patented parts have been used. To protect certain large items against theft, in the home or the showroom, tags can be set to be silent until they are moved, after which they can alert. "This is becoming an important aspect of the industry and there are several different and innovative encryption solutions to prevent intrusion," Jorgensen said. Delta is working with a number of companies focused on rfid security, including Danish start up RFIDsec and French company Inside Secure. "We have had installations in place for many years that have never been hacked or cracked," Jorgensen claimed. "In some cases," he continued, "people shouldn't even know something has a tag." The military and aerospace industries are adopting the technology to detect unauthorised reuse of components that have been scrapped, for example. Meanwhile, NFC chip vendors are expected to develop innovative security solutions, as well as integrating the NFC and secure elements into other chips or the baseband circuitry in a mobile phone. Technical challenges Future rfid technical challenges include the constant drive to reduce power consumption, increase battery life and extend the read distance, especially for passive tags. For some rfid tag applications, a tiny battery can last for the life of the product or the duration of the process being monitored. Meanwhile, a battery life of a couple of days is enough to monitor chilled food transportation. Yet the same battery might last a month for intelligent pill packaging, as the system would only be activated once or twice a day for a very short time. Meanwhile, the demand for ultra low power devices and processes continues to grow and Delta is working with technology and foundry partners including imec, SMIC and Global Foundries, to develop such solutions. "We're working on energy harvesting systems to power the next generation tags," Jorgensen concluded. "We see kinetic and temperature differential sources as having high potential, particularly for body monitoring applications."