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What is RFID?


A proven technology that has been around since about the 1940’s, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has the potential to dramatically improve various industrial and service applications through automatic detection, unique identification and control.  RFID is expected to provide immense supply chain efficiencies, reduced labour costs, and accurate real-time resource information.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) uses wireless technology operating with the 50 kHz to 2.5 GHz frequency range.  A RFID system consists of a RFID tag or transponder that contains data about the tagged item/object, and antenna, a RF. transceiver to generate RF signals, and a RFID reader used for collecting RFID data, which it passes to a host system for processing.
RFID does not require line-of-sight to operate for communications between a tagged object (which could be almost anything including a car, merchandise, package, etc.) and a reader (an electronic device used to capture the RFID signal).

Data encoded on the RFID tag can contain a variety of information about the object including item description through the use of an electronic product code (EPC).  The EPC is an electronic representation of a product, which can include information about the product, manufacturer, and uniquely identify the product.

How does RFID work?

A RFID tag consists of a microchip and a coiled antenna.


RFID tags may be either active or passive.  Active tags tend to be larger and more expensive than passive tags as they contain more electronics due to the fact that they actively transmit data to a reader. 

In comparison, passive tags draw power from the magnetic field generated between itself and a reader to power its microchip’s circuits, allowing it to reflect the RF signal transmitted to them from a reader, adding information by modulating the reflected signal. 

Tags can also be either read-only, volatile read/write, or write one/read many.

In order for communication to occur between a tag and a reader, they must be tuned to the same frequency.  RFID systems can be configured to operate in a variety of frequencies from low to ultrahigh frequency (UHF) or even microwave.  Being that RF propagation is different at different frequencies due to power and wave form properties, RFID system configuration must be considered in accordance with the applications that the system is designed to support.  For example, low frequency tags are a good choice for applications in which the distance between tag and reader is small (typically less than a foot) as opposed to UHF, which supports applications at greater distances (up to about 20 feet).

Data gathered for purposes of processing information for and about the tagged RFID item/object may include:

  • Description (EPC)
  • Time
  • Location
  • Physical parameters (temperature, pressure, humidity, etc.)

More about Tags and Reader Configuration

Tag options include the following:

  • Passive or active
  • Read-only, Read-write, or write once
  • Short range or long range

Image source:

RFID architecture diagram

Each option has certain advantages and disadvantages.  For example, active tags cost more and are larger, but are a better choice for use with high value goods and/or those that require continuous identification and location.  Read-write tags, while expensive compared to read-only, are a good choice for monitoring for security, quality assurance, and/or theft deterrence.

Active tags may either provide active presence or active location information.  This means that they can either provide general information about the presence of an object/item or more precise location information.  Active location RFID systems support a higher effective read range with greater resolution capabilities, allowing for more precise tag location determination.  Read-write tags have reduced range due to the increased signal overhead of the full duplex communications, causing these systems to not perform location determination as well as read-only systems.

RFID Vs. other techniques (Bar Codes)

While Universal Product Codes (UPC) used with bar coding systems have provided many benefits, EPC’s used with RFID systems are poised to provide increased efficiency and productivity by way of automatic identification and tracking.

handheld rfid barcode reader

Unlike bar code systems, which use a reader and code labels that are attached to the object, RFID uses an electronic tag on the reader to acquire a RF signal at a RFID reader.  Information in transferred via optical signal with bar codes as opposed to RF signals with RFID

Bar codes and RFID tend to be used for different applications.  The fact that RFID does not depend on line-of-sight, makes it particularly useful for applications, such as package management, in which the item must be handled many times.  Being that standard bar codes typically only contain information about the manufacturer or originator of an item and basic information about the object itself, RFID is particularly useful for applications in which the item must be identified uniquely.

Being that it uses radio waves rather than optical, RFID can penetrate non-metallic materials, allowing the RFID tag to be embedded or encased within an item or object.  In contrast, the bar code must be physically exposed to the surface of the object, and in the case of bar code labels, can fall off the object.

Generally speaking, RFID is a better choice for situations in which there is a need for a lot of handling, such as in a manufacturing and/or moving inventory situations.

RFID Applications

Applications enabled be RFID systems are limited only by the imagination, but generally fall into the following categories:

  • Metering applications such as electronic toll collection
  • Telemetry, telematics, and sensor applications
  • Inventory control and tracking such as merchandise control
  • Asset tracking and recovery such as computing equipment monitoring
  • Tracking parts moving through a manufacturing process
  • Tracking goods in a supply chain
  • Payment systems


RFID systems can improve CRM systems through inventory control.  For example, a customer service person can immediately and authoritatively tell a customer whether a particular merchandise item is in the store and exactly where it is within the store.  In addition to the CRM benefit, this can provide a huge benefit in productivity, virtually eliminating the time and expense of employees locating merchandise.

Combining RFID systems with sensor applications enables solutions such as detecting when a uniquely identified object has come into contact with an environment that it should not, such as an area that is too hot, too dusty, to humid, etc.  Sensor systems can also provide valuable CRM data via RFID communication such as detecting that car engine needs maintenance when a consumer brings a car in for an oil change.

RFID can be invaluable for applications in which uniquely identifying the item/object is critical due to concern over safety or quality assurance such as management of hazardous materials or manufacturing situations in which quality control depends on precise parts control.

As RFID evolves to allow for standardisation and personal RFID readers, various presence-based wireless marketing features will be enabled such as the ability to automatically inform a consumer when they are within the vicinity of a product type that they desire.



Circuit/ Packet switching


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