RFID Technology: A Little History
Radio frequency identification (RFID) dates back to World War II, where it was used to identify British aircraft as they returned to base after missions. For many decades thereafter, however, it found little usage in commercial applications, despite being touted as a technology with almost unlimited applications. Only in the last ten years has RFID technology achieved real traction as it has progressed quickly through a series of successful applications in manufacturing, logistics and, most recently, retail. These wins have been accompanied by advancements in the technology, with the most recent leap being the development of wide-Area RFID technology.
The Basic RFID System
In simple terms, an RFID system has two parts – electronic devices called readers that send out radio signals, and label-like tags with a small amount of information in them – usually just a unique serial number. When the reader’s radio signal hits the tags, the tag can reflect back a signal with its serial number. In this way the reader can identify all the tags within a short distance, usually a few meters. In addition to being able to identify and count all of the tags in the vicinity, some readers can estimate the location of the tag.
Until recently, the RFID system has been somewhat limited to applications in which all tagged items must pass through a checkpoint or portal where readers are carefully positioned to pick up each tag’s signal as it passes through. In the logistics industry, RFID tags are attached to shipping containers, pallets and cases of goods are recorded as they arrive or leave a shipping facility. In the manufacturing sector tags may be attached to components, such as subassemblies in an automotive plant, which can then be tracked as they move along the production line. People have also been carrying access cards embedded with RFID chips to pass through turnstiles on public transport systems in many cities for some time. While these applications span a wide range of industries, they all depend on tags passing through a gateway of readers.
The development of lightweight, handheld RFID readers opened up many new applications. Take the retail sector, for example, where the once revolutionary barcode technology is used to count and manage store inventory. The problem with barcodes is that a person using a barcode reader must scan every item one-by-one. For a typical mid-sized apparel store with tens of thousands of unique items, a physical inventory count becomes a mammoth task. In fact, it’s so big that the average apparel retailer does it twice a year. RFID streamlines this task so that retailers can count more often, gaining the benefits of more accurate inventory.
RFID in Retail
In 2014 international retail giant Zara became a front-runner in retail RFID technology buying an estimated 500 million RFID chips to kick-start their switch to the technology. “Before the chips were introduced, employees had to scan barcodes one at a time,” said Graciela Martín, store manager at one of Zara’s biggest outlets in Madrid. “These storewide inventories were performed once every six months, but because the [RFID] chips save time, Zara now carries out inventories every six weeks, getting a more accurate picture of what fashions are selling well and any styles that are languishing.”
In the RFID system that Zara and several other major retailers implemented in the last few years, tags were placed on each item, then handheld readers were able to take inventories one rack of clothing at a time. This meant inventories could be taken at a fraction of the time of the previous barcode based technology and created the multitude of benefits that come from having a better idea of what is in a store, and what isn’t, at more frequent intervals.
The challenge with handhelds is that they rely on human employees. With retail industry turnover of over 50%, keeping the staff trained and the results repeatable is not straightforward. Plus, though handhelds are faster, they still require labor. Most retailers count much more often in order to capture the better inventory accuracy, but this eats up the labor savings. What’s needed is a solution that is always on, real-time, invisible and automatic – this is the original promise of RFID.
Traditional fixed readers are optimized for the portals and chokepoints described above. Ideal for detecting tags in a local area, they are not designed to provide cost-effective monitoring over a larger area like a store floor, an application Mojix termed “Wide Area RFID.” A simple, but expensive solution involves installing readers all over the ceiling of the store, but this means multiplying the most costly element in the solution – the reader. The key to Mojix’s innovation was to expand the system by adding low-cost antennas while minimizing the number of readers. Called “distributed excitation,” this patented architecture allows a single reader connected to a network of low-cost antennas to cover an entire 2,000 to 3,000 square-foot store.
Mojix relied on a unique skillset to develop this solution. The company was founded in 2003 by some of the world’s foremost experts in advanced signal processing technology perfected for deep space communications at NASA. Founder Dr. Ramin Sadr led a small team at NASA solving some of the toughest communications challenges concerning deep space probes. Using lessons learned in deep space applications, Mojix developed technology that completely rewrites the textbook on inventory management.
One of the outcomes of this design process was the need to make the readers substantially more sensitive than traditional readers in order to detect tags without direct line-of-sight, even after they’ve bounced off walls and metal fixtures a few times. In fact, Mojix readers are hundreds to thousands of times more sensitive, making them ideal for indoor environments such as retail and healthcare.
What About the Data?
A system like this generates a lot of data that must be captured, filtered, analyzed and reported on. To tackle this Mojix acquired TierConnect, the creators of a state-of-the-art IoT platform called ViZix. With the addition of a next-generation software platform, Mojix is best positioned to further strengthen its role as a leading IoT solutions provider. To offer flexibility to retailers, Mojix offers this technology as a turnkey service under the name OmniSenseRF Inventory Service.
With a software platform in place to support an innovative hardware solution, Mojix is in position to revolutionize the RFID sector with its patented Wide-Area RFID technology. It’s not just the retail sector that enjoys the benefits; Mojix has been working in many other markets, including oil and gas, manufacturing, healthcare, automotive, and event safety and security to name a few. The applications that could benefit from this technology are seemingly endless and only limited by our imagination. You can read the benefits of RFID in depth by clicking here.