Technology is constantly changing, evolving and advancing, making it hard to know what’s just around the corner. But one thing is certain – over time technology components get smaller, more powerful and cheaper to produce. In fact, the famous Moore’s Law states that “the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, though the cost of computers is halved”.
This observation was made by Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, over 50 years ago. And while this rule was applied to computer chips or microprocessors, it remains relevant and applicable to many different technology categories.
Which brings us to RFID technology.
Still a relatively young technology, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) has exploded in popularity and usage in supply chain management and asset tracking solutions over the past two decades or so.
Recent advances in research around RFID chips and what might soon be possible promises to open up a world of new possibilities, applications and opportunities for tracking an increasing range of inventory and assets.
Before we look at these breakthroughs, let’s quickly look at what RFID technology is, and the components that are part of RFID inventory and asset tracking solutions.
What is RFID technology and how does it work?
RFID technology solutions are made up of core components that work together to keep track of valuable inventory, assets and even people. A ‘smart’ tag is affixed to an item needing to be tracked. RFID tags come in a variety of shapes, sizes and capabilities, but common to them all is the ability to store information (much more than standard barcodes) and communicate data such as movement and location back to a central database.
RFID readers are used to ‘read’ tags from a distance, often with the simple wave of a hand in a packed storeroom full of tagged products using a handheld reader or App-enabled smartphone. In addition, fixed RFID readers or stations are strategically located in say a hospital, warehouse or workplace and they track the movement of items in and out.
All the information fed from tags to readers is then relayed to a central location where custom RFID software (such as RAMP’s Loca.fi) stores and analyses a huge amount of data to identify the precise location of valuable items in real-time, as well as providing useful insights to help make more informed business decisions.
Blink and you’ll miss it
Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) have made what is thought to be the smallest state-of-the-art RFID chip, and this has huge implications for one critical component of RFID solutions – RFID tags.
Compatible with the widely used global UHF Gen 2 standard, these new RFID chips measure 125 micrometres by 245 micrometres. Also known as microns, a micrometre is a unit of length equal to one millionth of a metre. For comparison purposes, a human hair is about 90 microns in diameter.
The researchers behind this latest advance in RFID technology note that the size of the antenna to transmit information to RFID readers is the biggest determinant in the size of an RFID tag, but the RFID chip is the expensive component.
Why size matters in RFID chip manufacturing
One of the main reasons this latest breakthrough is going to make waves in the RFID industry is the expected cost savings in manufacturing RFID tags. When it comes to chips, the smaller they are, the more that can be produced from a silicon wafer.
So each chip becomes less expensive.
Paul Franzon, one of the authors of the NCSU research report, said “In practical terms, this means that we can manufacture RFID tags for less than one cent if we’re manufacturing them in volume.”
A new world of possibilities
There are two major implications for the RFID technology industry of these much smaller, and less costly, RFID chips:
Tracking lower value items
Unlike traditional barcodes, RFID tags are relatively more costly to produce. And in most retail supply chains where tags are affixed to inventory items, these tags are by their nature disposable and walk out the door (or get shipped) with every purchase.
As the cost of producing RFID tags comes down, they become a very practical options for manufacturers, distributors and retailers of lower cost items, such as FMCG products. The tags could be used to track all the products in a supermarket without the need for items to be scanned individually when they are delivered, or during stocktakes. There is also a large opportunity for new efficiencies with the use of RFID technology at supermarket point-of-sale or checkout.
Further, the reduced size of these new RFID tags allows them to be affixed to smaller products, which may not have been previously possible.
Protecting high value supply chains:
As a function of their smaller size, and their compatibility with a wide range of semiconductor technologies such as those used in conventional computer chips, the new RFID tags can be incorporated into computer chips.
This will allow the tracking of individual chips through their life cycle, reducing counterfeiting by ensuring components can be identified and traced back to their origins.
While the research conducted by the team at NCSU has demonstrated what might be possible in the near future, the challenge now is for the RFID industry to find ways to commercialise these new smaller and less costly RFID chips. It will be a very worthwhile exercise, as the possibilities are endless, and exciting.
RAMP is always ahead of the technology curve
Besides the ongoing advancement of technology capability in the RFID industry, there’s one other certainty in RFID – RAMP is the leading specialist provider of RFID technology solutions in Australia, and the best choice of partner to help you automate and streamline processes to improve efficiency, minimise losses and increase visibility of your valuable inventory and assets.
RAMP has been working with Australian businesses for over a decade to design and implement customised RFID solutions for supply chain management and to track inventory, assets, vehicles and people across a range of industries and applications.
When you choose RAMP for RFID, you can have confidence that you will have access to the latest proven RFID technology, incorporated into solutions delivered by locally-based consultants, engineers and software developers.