RFID goes beyond inventory tracking

Wal-Mart’s ambitious project to affix radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to merchandise has been the poster boy for RFID for so long that anyone could be forgiven for thinking RFID is simply an inventory control technology – and that setbacks in the Wal-Mart project indicate it isn’t catching on.

In fact, while some Wal-Mart suppliers have missed deadlines for tagging their goods, the project isn’t going too badly, says Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont. But even if Wal-Mart’s and every other inventory control project had crashed and burned, RFID would still be pretty big.

Its uses range from access control to payment cards to tracking goods through assembly lines to tracking inspection and testing of equipment.

Some of those uses are established but growing as costs fall and users see now possibilities. Others are just emerging.

Payment cards are an increasingly popular use of RFID. MasterCard Canada, for instance, has combined contact and contactless technology in its new chip cards, layering RFID technology on top of the EMV standard credit card issuers are phasing in for chip and personal identification number payments.

Its PayPass cards are accepted for charges under $50 at merchants like Tim Horton’s and Loblaws, and MasterCard recently signed a deal with Coca-Cola Bottling Co. that will see some 5,000 vending machines accepting them by 2010.

Paying by bringing a card within four centimeters of a reader is convenient and makes card payments for small transactions practical, says William Giles, vice-president of acceptance at MasterCard Canada. “It opens up a new category of transactions and huge convenience for cardholders.”

Also, says Giles, contactless payments reduce wear and tear on cards, eliminate puzzling over which way the card goes into an electronic reader, and in some cases consumers needn’t even take their cards out of their wallets.

One established use of RFID is in access control. Wallet-sized plastic cards or key fobs with embedded chips can unlock doors without being inserted in a card reader. These cards have become popular in workplaces and other locations where access control is required. As RFID costs decline, says Tauschek, access control cards are taking on new roles.

A fitness club, for instance, might have started by giving members chip cards that open its outside doors. Today, those cards are starting to operate vending machines, recording time spent on different exercise machines and even calling up workout plans on computer screens so members don’t have to carry the information around with them.

The health-care sector is increasingly interested in RFID for tracking equipment, staff and patients. Tagging scarce and valuable equipment not only discourages theft but makes equipment easier to find when needed. As anyone who has ever tried to locate a wheelchair in a busy hospital knows, that’s not trivial.

“RFID is a technology that we feel strongly has a role to play in the health care space,” says Victor Garcia, chief technologist at Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont.

Most large hospitals have now implemented wireless networks, which can provide a communications channel for RFID applications, Tauschek says. Some are also adding RFID tags to wireless communications devices that staff carry, to track their movements automatically. If a nurse has a problem, she can simply hit a wireless panic button – her location is already known.

Tagging medication is a kind of inventory control, but with more serious implications because medication errors can be a life-or-death matter, notes Victor Vega, director of marketing at Morgan Hill, Calif.-based RFID vendor Alien Technology Corp. Many hospitals use dispensing machines similar to vending machines, and if these are loaded incorrectly, patients can receive the wrong meds. RFID readers in the machines can check tags as individual vials are dispensed to make sure they are what was requested, Vega says.

There is an argument for putting RFID tags on patients, particularly those with dementia or under heavy medication, who may wander within or even out of the hospital. RFID readers at exits and other “choke points” can track where a patient is and alert nursing staff when necessary.

That has privacy implications. A report on that issue by Garcia and Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian emphasizes that RFID tags on patients or on articles associated with patients must be used carefully and informed consent is important. But Garcia argues RFID can sometimes make patient information more secure by allowing it to be stored in encrypted electronic form rather than written on charts or whiteboards that anyone can read.

And by storing vital information directly on the chip rather than using an identifier to look it up, Garcia says, simple handheld readers can retrieve it even if a network or back-end server is down.

In some cases, says Tauschek, the benefits are sufficient to overcome privacy concerns and patients or relatives will agree to RFID tagging. “I think that the tradeoff between privacy and safety will come through approval or through permissions given.”

RFID tags can be used for more than tracking equipment location. Toronto-based N4 Systems, Inc., has developed software for managing construction equipment inspections and maintenance using RFID tags.

N4 was a systems integrator that did extensive work with RFID before shifting its focus to the Field ID software. Shaun Ricci, N4’s co-chief executive, says the software is designed to make help contractors meet regulatory requirements and ensure equipment is properly maintained and inspected before it goes to job sites.

Bar codes and visible tags don’t always work well in harsh construction-site environments because they can be worn away or obscured by dirt, he says. Although reading RFID tags reliably on equipment that is largely metal is a challenge – metal and liquids both tend to interfere with RFID reading – N4 has worked with an RFID tag supplier to develop chips that work reliably on metallic surfaces.

And construction sites aren’t the only harsh environments where RFID is used. Vega notes that active RFID chips have been used for some time in motorcycle racing to identify vehicles, but the active tags cost $300 or so apiece. Now that the industry is developing much cheaper passive tags that can be read at a sufficient distance, the idea is spreading.

Those tags can be read as a motorcycle passes at 140 miles per hour, Vega says. “And the industry used to be concerned about tags that were on conveyors at 600 feet per minute. I don’t think you have to worry about that any more.”

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