SME Speaks: Overcome RFID Challenges (Easily) and Reap Substantial Benefit
By John Greaves
Global RFID Group
While it has been in use since the 1940s, today Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has become a hyped up buzzword striking a chord with manufacturers worldwide--for both the right and wrong reasons.
"RFID" is a wide ranging technology and a generic description--used for marketplace recognition purposes--of the use of Short Range Devices (SRD) to transmit information with revolutionary speed and without contact or line of sight. Through the use of an RFID tag (essentially a portable memory), a transceiver antenna, and a system controller that verifies data transfer to the "real" world, RFID makes it possible to locate and learn details about everything from pallets full of widgets to bags of potato chips. It has the potential, therefore, to contribute to everything from improving manufacturing processes, to confirming equipment maintenance histories, to catching a thief.
While the technology has been associated with Orwellian concerns about personal privacy, fast-moving consumer goods, retail procurement, and cost plus burdens for manufacturers, it is poised to revolutionize industry. Manufacturers should look past these incorrect perceptions and consider RFID for the solutions, efficiencies, and profits it can enable, particularly as RFID is becoming required by a growing number of companies, like The Boeing Company, Airbus, and all the companies manufacturing for the US Department of Defense.
If you want to work with these companies and many others outside of aerospace and defense, I recommend exploring RFID systems, standards and control systems. While it might seem overwhelming at first, using basic knowledge and common sense will help you select the most appropriate RFID system for your business. Four principal elements to consider are frequency, technology, the regulatory environment, and data.
RFID users--particularly in the retail supply chain--are increasingly making use of passive UHF, led largely by the implementation efforts of WalMart. For that reason, it is a perfect example of how manufacturers can overcome concerns about costs and capability, and make RFID work for them.
UHF, ultra-high frequency, technology allows increased distances between readers and tags. Until recently, RFID challenges posed by metal and liquids used in products or their packaging made it difficult for manufacturers to justify the cost. Both metal and liquid impair UHF signals, and therefore technologies have had to involve active RFID tags with batteries, as well as the higher costs and increased maintenance hours that come with them.
In the case of passive UHF, which has a frequency range of 862 to 976 MHz, the ability to read a tag is determined by the reader and the associated antenna array. In ideal circumstances, where the tagged item is traveling slowly (e.g. 50 fpm) and has no physical characteristics that impair UHF signals, a single antenna enables at least four points of identification of the item(s) to be measured. In less-ideal circumstances, such as those involving liquid or metal, challenges can be overcome quite simply:
- The surface area of the RFID label antenna can be increased.
- The quality of the label antenna reflective material can be improved.
- The density of antennas at point of read/write can be increased.
- Patented/licensable workarounds can be applied to the tag.
In other words, it can still work.
Since relatively few small companies are involved in the development of tags, readers, antennas, and other hardware elements required for passive UHF use, the now-quite-mature radio/RFID applications may seem more appealing. It is definitely worth exploring the deployment and investment of passive UHF regardless; it is a technology that can do a great deal for the ultimate cost-effectiveness of your end product.
To make it work, manufacturers must be aware that there is no one tag that fits all and that the quest to accommodate a uniform model has led some users to unnecessarily accept performance reductions or worse, to base decisions on the presumed effective price of a tag, rather than on a consideration of the overall metrics and economies of an end-to-end RFID-enabled supply chain.
Whether they are implementing an RFID solution by choice or by force, it is critical that manufacturers understand the approval marks and certifications that guarantee their RFID equipment can be used legally. No company wants to find itself compromised by the use of unlicensed spectrum.
The current US regulations, defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Part 15, state the conditions under which RFID devices operating at UHF frequencies are allowed, define operation within the bands 902 - 928 MHz, 2400 - 2483.5 MHz, and 5725 - 5850 MHz, and explain the appropriate use of Part 15-compliant UHF readers. Knowledge of the regulations will help manufacturers avoid operational compromises and guarantee that the data capture is legal.
Finally, and most importantly, focus on the data management support you need. It is the most important consideration to apply in your RFID investment because it, alone, determines the worth of your efforts. A company I recently worked with wisely spent 10 times as much on exigency and specialized staff to implement its RFID program than it spent on RFID hardware. Then it invested 30 times as much on software because the company realized that the data it collects and uses is the key to its success.
One of the most effective data tools is the Electronic Product Code (EPC). If transferred effectively from retail to manufacturing, it will go a considerable way towards establishing the level of open data interchange required in today's fast-moving supply chain. It is also a case for careful analysis. While the global EPC network makes it possible to retain a significant amount of data right on the tag--as opposed to requiring a system lookup--the mechanics surrounding the validation of EPC at the point of tagging has considerable gaps at this time. I tell the companies I advise not to be deterred. For the dedicated and professional user, EPC as part of an RFID implementation can be absolutely invaluable.
Don't discount RFID as something only for the retail industry. As an enabling tool, it is not as daunting as it used to be and success is possible with knowledge, problem-solving skills, and a strong commitment to excellence. It should be easy; these are characteristics you, as a manufacturing professional, demonstrate each day as you make our world a better place.
Helping expand the nation's natural resources
As demand for natural gas continues increasing, explorers are searching for gas and oil fields in deeper water, but the depths and horizontal reach of the drill paths required in this exploration are pushing the limits of steel drill pipe. Engineers have contributed to solving this challenge by developing lightweight and strong composite pipes that can be used to drill farther and deeper than steel pipes, and provide speedier data transfer.
Longtime SME member and CEO of Advanced Composite Products and Technology Inc. (ACPT) James C. Leslie is part of this solution. Supported by the US Department of Energy's (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory, ACPT has undertaken the development--and pilot plant production--of composite drill pipes. While composite drill pipes cost more than steel drill pipes--about three to five times more than standard S-135 steel pipe--many industrialists and engineers feel strongly that they are well worth the added investment. They have the potential to make significant contributions toward meeting the nation's demand for natural gas and oil.
Composite drill pipes can contribute to ensuring the availability of gas and oil because they provide hope for revitalizing oil and gas fields that were previously thought to be depleted, as well as by creating efficiencies for deep-water and extended-reach drilling operations. As Leslie explained in a recently published SME technical paper, composite drill pipes offer significant advantages. They are capable of supplying a means for real-time transfer of data and power to and from the well head to the drill bit. They are also able to withstand the tremendous stresses encountered in horizontal drilling operations. When damaged, they can often be repaired or recycled.
With the DOE's support, Leslie and other engineers at ACPT have tested 30' (9.1-m) sections of composite drill pipe from initial material screening to final in-ground evaluation, and began providing short-radius composite drill pipes to drilling companies on a limited, continuing, field-evaluation basis. Ultimately, their work, will contribute to helping ensure the supply of abundant, low-cost natural gas to American consumers and businesses.
This article was first published in the June 2005 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.