RFID Technology – What it is and how it works

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is the technology foundation behind powerful asset and inventory tracking solutions that keep track of what matters for businesses in many industries all over the world. 

RFID-based technology is widely used commercially to increase the visibility of, and provide real-time location and status for, all kinds of assets including inventory, equipment, vehicles, produce and even people. It is a very accurate, efficient and cost-effective method for tracking items of value as they move around supply chains, warehouses, retail stores, offices, museums, galleries, worksites and dealerships. 

Features that make RFID very appealing as an asset and inventory tracking solution include:

  • Little to no human intervention (such as in manual stocktakes) required to count items.
  • The ability to find and identify items at a distance without direct line of sight.
  • Increased accuracy of stock counts and location information to 99+%.
  • Collection and analysis of large amounts of data to make faster, more informed decisions. 

Here we look at the technology behind RFID solutions and how it works to keep track of what matters. 

How does RFID technology work?

RFID technology uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to items, objects and people. 

A ‘smart’ RFID 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 and communicate data such as movement and location back to a central database via an RFID reader. 

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 warehouse or workplace and they track the movement of items, vehicles and people 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. 

We’ll now take a look at the components that make up an RFID technology solution in more detail. 

The components that make RFID technology work

There are a range of components that make up a customised RFID technology solution. There are various options within the componentry to help make each RFID-based system effective and efficient for a particular use. Talk to your RFID specialist about your specific needs to get a solution that best suits your requirements. 

RFID tags

While the term ‘RFID tags’ is widely used as a catch-all descriptor in the industry, the first thing to understand is that tags can take many forms including stickers, adhesive labels, hang tags and hard tags that suit any environment. 

Deciding on what tag will suit a particular application comes down to a range of factors that include:

  • The object being tagged, and where the tag needs to be placed for optimal reading
  • The surface upon which the tag will be affixed (metal, plastic etc.) and if it is unusual or irregular
  • The physical stress the tag may be subjected to, such as commercial linen or extreme weather conditions for objects in the field
  • If the tag needs to be wearable by a person, such as on a wristband or fob

Finally, and very importantly, is whether RFID tags in a particular application need to be active or passive. 

  • Active RFID tags have a transmitter and their own power source, such as a battery, and offer a longer read range. Power is provided to run the circuitry of the tag, and also to transmit or broadcast a signal to an RFID reader. This is similar to how a mobile phone sends a signal to a cell tower. Active tags are ‘always on’ and broadcasting their signal whether in range of a reader or not. These tags are bulkier and heavier (due to the power source) and are more costly than passive tags. They are suitable for larger and higher value assets, such as vehicles and equipment.
  • Passive RFID tags do not have a battery or power source, and offer a shorter read range. Instead, they draw power from the RFID reader that sends out electromagnetic waves that create a current in the antenna of the tag. These tags lie dormant until they get a signal from a reader. Passive RFID tags are small, light and relatively cheap, and they are more readily disposable. They are suitable for fast moving retail items.

RFID Printers

RFID printers are specialised devices that can simultaneously print and encode information on RFID tags and labels. RFID printers use smart labels which are standard printed labels with RFID chips and antennae embedded into the label itself. The chip is encoded with relevant data that can be read by an RFID reader.

In fast-moving retail environments, an RFID printer provides flexibility and high-speed printing and encoding of RFID labels for inventory items. For business with operations or manufacturing in multiple countries around the world, RFID tag printing can be outsourced and off-shored via bureau partners with the assistance of your local RFID specialist

RFID readers

RFID readers can be mobile (handheld or App-based on a smartphone) or fixed (mounted) and pick up radio signals transmitted by RFID tags affixed to items or worn by people. Handheld readers are able to sweep a room and identify tagged items much faster, and more accurately, than manually reading each item from close proximity as with traditional barcode technology. 

Fixed RFID readers can be placed at strategic locations in warehouses, retail stores, galleries, yards or ports to track the movement of goods, vehicles and people in or out.

RFID readers provide the crucial link in an RFID technology solution between tagged objects and the software that records and displays locations (and other information) in real-time.

RFID software

RFID asset tracking and inventory management software captures data from fixed and mobile RFID readers to provide real-time asset and inventory visibility across your business or supply chain. 

An example of RFID software is RAMP’s locally-developed Loca.fi, a powerful, cloud-based platform designed to suit the requirements of a wide range of industries including manufacturers, retailers and transport and logistics providers, to name a few. 

RFID software not only captures and manages huge amounts of location data and other information, but it provides insights to help drive smarter, leaner processes and informed business decision-making. 

Applications of RFID technology

RFID-based technology solutions are deployed across many industries, with purpose-built systems designed to address the specific needs of different industries to increase asset and inventory visibility, reduce asset and stock losses, and increase efficiencies. 

Industries that are using RFID to great success include:

  • Retail: complete visibility of inventory from source to sale makes sure products get to customers when and where they want to buy. Used by single and multi-store retailers, online retailers and wholesale distributors for product categories including apparel, eyewear, cosmetics and beauty products. 
  • Transport & logistics: with just-in-time delivery pressures and complex supply chains, RFID solutions increase visibility and control of all processes in the supply chain from source to distribution to end customer. Applications include weighbridge automation, traffic and queue management and gate automation. 
  • Mining & construction: automated materials handling, vehicle tracking, equipment monitoring and creating a safe working environment for personnel (even underground) in even the most harsh conditions increases safety and efficiency, and reduces theft and losses. 
  • Food & beverage: agriculture, food, beverage and hospitality service providers can manage provenance and proof of compliance to confirm ethical sourcing and sustainability across the entire supply chain, with reduced wastage, simplified stock rotation, fast recall management and reduced labour costs. 
  • Automotive: RFID vehicle tracking helps track fleets and vehicles in real-time to increase control, efficiency, safety and compliance. Automation of manual processes improves efficiency, reduces costs, improves customer satisfaction and ensures compliance with laws and regulations. 
  • Arts: museums, galleries and performing arts companies can get complete visibility of valuable artefacts and items such as costumes and other equipment by automating manual processes to reduce errors, and save the large cost of time and human resources of manual tracking. 

There are many examples of how RFID has provided significant return on investment and on-going efficiencies for a range of businesses across different industries. 

How to make RFID technology work for your business

If you need an efficient and effective way to keep track of your valuable assets or inventory in stores, warehouses or across the entire supply chain, talk to RAMP, Australia’s leading RFID specialist.

We’ve been working with Australian businesses for over a decade to design and implement RFID customised solutions for supply chain, inventory and vehicle tracking, retail and a range of other applications across many industries. 

RAMP can help you automate and streamline processes to improve efficiency, minimise losses and increase visibility with our locally-based consultants, engineers and software developers.