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Mar 25, 2021

The Benefits from RFID Technology Growth in this Decade

I work as an engineer at Voyantic and my main fields of expertise are electronics and radio science. Last autumn I started studying business administration to get a wider perspective in general. I have been trying to tie my work and studies together as much as possible, and when I attended a course called “Future experts 2030”, I got the idea to look into the future and see what it might bring for the RFID industry. More specifically: I tried to pick some trends which would have the most impact on the growth of the RFID industry.

Of course, there are a lot of possibilities, but I chose to take a closer look at five megatrends:

  • The development of science and technology
  • Overconsumption of resources
  • The amount of waste increases
  • Population growth and the aging of the population
  • The development of healthcare

Those megatrends were put on a future radar and some important elements were added for each sector.

The further from the center the elements are, the weaker their effect is in the present time. The colors represent the trend of the elements:

  • Green: Strengthening
  • Blue: Weakening
  • Red: Wild card

Let’s look into these trends and see what they have to do with RFID.

The development of science and technology

RFID technology is developing rapidly all the time, no doubt about that. My colleague Teemu wrote a blog post about the recent RAIN RFID research topics a while ago and listed some interesting topics there. However, if we look at the big picture it is not surprising that other technologies are also developing, and some of those are competing with RFID.

Since RFID enables items (or “things”) to be identified by systems run by computers, it is naturally one of the technologies used by IoT. For example, retail stores can use RFID for automated and real-time inventory. But when we think about identifying an item, is it enough to just know what it is? Wouldn’t it also be nice to know where it came from?

Hospitals can trace people and equipment with RFID tags, and I believe that this kind of traceability would make RFID much more valuable in some cases. That would require that different systems would be able to communicate with each other and pass tag information from one operating environment to another. For example, responsibility is nowadays an important aspect and companies could benefit from more transparent value chains.

Looking from a different perspective, the data consumption in the world keeps increasing exponentially and the data provided by RFID is adding to that. This requires continuously more from the data transfer networks and memory storage. This also brings data management challenges for the RFID systems.

Population growth, aging, and the development of healthcare

In western countries, the population is aging and the lifetime expectancy keeps increasing. The importance of healthcare will also grow while the workforce shortage problem gets worse. Since the amount of work increases, system and service automation should be made effective. This development is fortunately already quite far, as can be seen from another one of Teemu’s blog posts.

More and more medicines are used globally, and online shopping for medicine is also growing. This could attract more counterfeit medicine to the market, and that is something RFID could be used to prevent. Medicine traceability would make it harder for counterfeit medicine to reach the market, which increases the security of the medicine market.

Overconsumption of resources and the amount of waste increases

The overconsumption of resources is a well-known problem around the globe and so is the amount of waste the human population creates. The more we spend, the worse it gets. In the future, soil degradation might prove to be a serious problem for agriculture, and a shortage of raw materials for the electronics or construction industry could be a crippling problem.

For example, in retail, physical waste is created when inventory is not up to date or there are problems in the logistic chain. This causes:

  • Items to go out of date (or fashion)
  • Too many items are ordered
  • Items are lost

RFID is a well-known answer for an automated inventory and the retail industry has adopted it quite nicely.

What is needed from the RFID industry?

To be able to offer reliable solutions for the problems, the RFID industry needs to overcome some obstacles. One well-known bottleneck is the tag manufacturing capacity; the world has not enough capacity to manufacture tags if every retailer suddenly demanded every item to be tagged. We have to pump up the tag manufacturing numbers to be able to answer the growing demand.

Putting up the infra to enable the benefits of RFID is not cheap and requires investment, but I’d like to raise an equally important aspect to overcome. It’s not easy. The end users might not be experts in RF and they do not want to buy the RFID infrastructure. What they want to buy is the automated inventory, which just happens to be enabled by RFID technology. And they need help with that. RFID is not magic and has its limitations that need to be considered. That is why I believe the help provided as a service creates quite much value for the customers and should not be overlooked.

I also believe that it is a problem that different RFID environments do not communicate with each other. It means that the traceability of a tag is cut when it moves from one environment to another. To overcome this issue, the companies could work together and create a standardized system for tracing tag data.

All in all, the RFID industry is in a good position, and seems like the demand for RFID solutions remains high in the future. Hopefully, the COVID-19 pandemic will not cause too much setback for the development of RFID technology due to companies investing less in new systems.

Mar 09, 2021

Highlights from the Future of RAIN RFID Tag Design Panel Discussion

On Feb 17th 2021, we hosted an online panel discussion on the future direction of RAIN RFID tag design and tagging implementations. The panelists for the discussion were Matti Tavilampi from Avery Dennison, Steve Berry from Impinj, and Jesse Tuominen from Voyantic.

In case you missed the discussion, view the recording HERE

The discussion topics ranged from industry trends and standards to the development of readers, systems, ICs, and manufacturing technologies as well as embedded tags and smart packaging.

If spending an hour on the webinar recording does not currently fit your schedule, we made a quick recap on the topics and main points that came up during the webinar:

Megatrends that drive the RAIN industry

Early on to the panel discussion, we asked the numerous attendees to weigh in with their preferred two megatrends that strongly affect the RAIN industry.

RAIN RFID and circular economy

At first, RAIN RFID tag volumes started to grow in retail applications 10 to 15 years ago. Now the same tags are increasingly being used in manufacturing and the supply chain before the retail stores. The expectation is that the same tags will also be increasingly used in applications beyond the point of sale.

Tags are being applied more and more in item manufacturing. Source tagging poses new requirements for the RAIN RFID tagging. Tagging should support both the FCC and ETSI regions, and perform well in dense populations. Endurance and ruggedness requirements increase, because, for example, tags on garments must survive the entire life cycle of the item. Data privacy must also be considered differently when there are multiple users for the tags.

Dual-frequency tags are one approach. In some applications, a tag can combine supply chain tracking (RAIN) and consumer interaction (NFC).

Standards

The core of the Gen2 air interface has been stable for a relatively long time. The adoption of RAIN RFID technology has benefitted from the stable standard environment.

In the IC market, there seems to be a split between:

  • bare functionalities,
  • and more complex features in the protocol, such as authentication.

When it comes to protecting tag data from rogue readers, there are some users already for encryption and authentication, and interest in these possibilities seems to be increasing.

A viable policy is to pay only for the capabilities and features that are essentially required by the use case. Designers should know the air protocol standard at some level, and then industry-specific standards relevant to their target segment (aerospace, tire RFID).

Frequency allocation is something that designers should be aware of – especially the status of the upper ETSI band. Ultimately the upper ETSI makes tagging easier and brings new optimization possibilities. Optimization for upper ETSI comes naturally because other geographical areas are in the same frequency area.

Readers and systems

During the discussion, it was noted that the human operator is often the weak link in handheld scanning. Transition to overhead readers is ongoing, although an even faster transition was expected. In addition to overheads, also EAS gate and other fixed reader types’ use is increasing. The main hurdle to applying a new type of readers is twofold: the slowness in changing processes and business practices, and secondly, the longer read distance increasing tagging performance requirements.

Applications will also focus more on movements and transitions, not only on counting. These new types of applications are based on advanced algorithms tightly connected to the readers. Impinj for example has focused on improving sensitivity in the latest reader designs. It is a constant race, and more often reader sensitivity is the bottleneck.

ICs

IC sensitivities have improved roughly 15 dB in past 15 years. Operating ranges have increased six-fold from the first designs. ICs are also shrinking in footprint; Monza 1 was about 10 times the size of the latest Monza version. At the same time performance has increased. With smaller sizes also the IC cost has decreased.

The technology has matured. Modern ICs are stable. Memory corruption, clock shifts, etc issues are not seen anymore. On the other hand, there are plenty of specialty ICs with kilobytes of memory, data busses, logging, etc.

Sensor ICs were also discussed. Passive technology of RAIN RFID is easy in many sensor applications. The challenge is operation when there is no active reading around, for example, in data logging applications. RAIN RFID does not fit everywhere, but more sensors will be seen, for example, in cold chain applications.

Manufacturing

Up until today, it has been evident that high manufacturing volumes require big machines. This is true especially for labels, both for manufacturing inlays and in converting the inlays to labels.

Distributed manufacturing will be seen more in personalizing the tags. Embedded tags will change manufacturing, and this change has started and will continue. Instead of one label process, the process is divided and integrated into different item-specific manufacturing processes.

Embedded tags

Embedded tags are already in use in a variety of applications. Apparel care labels are already made in volumes. Also, tire tag volumes are increasing.

In many industrial areas and healthcare, further standardization is probably needed before embedded tag volumes grow. For example, the tire industry already has an ISO standard in place for tagging, enabling the industry to implement RAIN in a way that is both scalable and interoperable.

Embedding tags is happening right now, for example, with consumer packaged goods. Food tags are being integrated more and more into the packages, instead of a label on top of the package.

New antenna types and materials

Aluminum will not go away in the near term. There are plenty of established machines and production processes. Aluminum also has its benefits. Recycling the tags in paper packages is a frequent question. The current recycling processes handle this automatically. Separating metal from paper and plastic is already done efficiently in recycling.

Manufacturing will develop and change, processes are becoming more environmentally friendly, using fewer chemicals and creating less waste. New materials will first come to use, for example, in food packaging, where metals need to be avoided.

The above points are a brief summary of the discussion. The full recording is available here ›