The rise and rise of RFID

06 February 2017

The development of RFID systems for use in industrial environments has come a long way since its first teetering steps in the 1970’s. Each new development since then has aimed to improve performance and extend the possibilities for a variety of applications, says George Perkins.

There are factors, unique to each industry, that need to be considered when determining the most suitable RFID system for an application. Generally, however, there are three main points that should to be taken into account and a compromise or ‘trade off’ reached. These include:

• The distance of the tags from the read-write heads,
• the speed at which the object can move past them, and 
• the data transfer rate. 

While there are a number of complex formulae offered by RFID system manufacturers, online configurators are also available which allow the customer to simulate their application and find the optimum set-up.

Like so many innovative concepts in the control industry, the automotive manufacturing industry was key to the development of RFID, driven by consumer demand for personalised vehicles.

Today the purchaser is able to decide exactly what is fitted to their car. This makes it necessary to somehow mark every car with information about individual features that need to be fitted, in order provide transparency at all times throughout the manufacturing process. The challenges presented by car manufacturing are unique in that it utilises almost all of the classical manufacturing processes. In addition to mechanical engineering it is possible to encounter elements of transport technology, handling technology and logistics as well as presses and general metal processing techniques.  Add to this a variety of different interlinked processes and you have a very complex scenario.

Automotive applications
Data carriers, or tags, capable of withstanding high temperatures were an important addition to systems offered to car manufacturers. Their use also became widespread in the paint curing process, where the data carriers can be used, as they can pass through the oven on the vehicle skids. These data carriers operate at +200°C and do not require cooling before reading or writing.

A good system will offer tags with EEPROM and FRAM memory, where the latter allows an almost unlimited number or read and write operations. Many conventional RFID systems are only capable of reading and writing tags statically, whereas the better systems can read and write ‚on the fly’, typically at speeds of 0.5 ms/byte. 

Producing read-write heads with a usable sensing range proved a major challenge for early system developers. However, it is now possible to get read-write heads with sensing ranges of around 500mm. 

Special IP69K rated read-write heads for food and beverage applications are now commonplace, and a further development is data carriers which can be mounted directly on metal. Tracking and traceability, vital in many production facilities today is made possible by the all-round capability of RFID.

Increasing demand for RFID technology has resulted in the production of more cost-effective solutions.  

New technologies also play an important role in this growth. Advances in printed electronics, for example, have helped create new classes of thin, flexible RFID tags that can be combined with printed sensors, printed batteries, thin-film photovoltaic solar cells, and other technologies. Antennae design has also been improved increasing the performance of the tags.

The integration of RFID and passive sensors for temperature, moisture, pressure and vibration can provide greater intelligence for monitoring and managing assets.

RFID is enabling a host of new applications in all major industry sectors but prior to the advent of cloud technology, managing the data flowing in from thousands of tags posed a problem. Now, with cloud-based applications and services taking the burden of IT support away from the point of activity, companies are able to deploy centrally managed and centrally available solutions without the traditional support and deployment costs.

George Perkins is marketing executive at Turck Banner.

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