RFID Challenges: When to Look for Other Options & When to Keep Moving Forward
Posted by Suzanne Smiley on 7th Apr 2016
Facing challenges when installing a new system or procedure is expected, but it helps to consider potential problems before installation. Large and small companies, as well as individuals, thinking about installing an RFID system have numerous things to consider before making a purchase. If the potential user prepares thoroughly and completes enough due diligence up front, it should reduce unplanned issues mid and post-installation. Unfortunately, even the most prepared organization might run into a few issues during installation due to the unpredictable nature of RFID when implemented in a new environment.
Deploying an RFID system can present many challenges; below are the four most common challenges (and ways to mitigate them).
1. When your business problem is non-existent
One of the most important things to consider when thinking about RFID is – be realistic when it comes to the problem that needs to be solved. When considering automating a process, the first step is to take time to understand what the business problem is currently and how the business would be affected if a part of the process, or the entire process, were automated. Would it save time, money, or both, and what would those savings mean in terms of a return?
Other important factors to consider are the advantages that RFID has to offer and if RFID technology is necessary for the application to accomplish its goals. One of RFID’s most important characteristics is that the technology uniquely identifies items (or crates of items) without requiring line of sight, making it exceptionally productive in applications like inventory and asset tracking. For example, finding a particular wrench, or group of wrenches, in a truck filled with hundreds of tools can be invaluable.
Understanding that a process is in need of automation is step one, but step two is asking the question “Do I need to uniquely identify items in my application, or is item 100006 any different from item 1555562?”
While problems can start out as small and grow until they reach a substantial size, generally speaking, small problems usually do not receive the return on investment (ROI) needed to offset the initial (and potentially ongoing) cost of installing an RFID system. Sometimes, automating a personal (i.e. non-business related) problem may lead to a very lucrative product or process, but because RFID systems are still relatively expensive, careful analysis should be undertaken in order to ensure RFID will produce a significant ROI.
2. When you are working in an extremely non-RF-friendly environment
The most common dilemma with RFID is environmental issues – whether that be non-RF-friendly substances like metal or water, or a generally unconducive environment. Environmental considerations can impose many limitations when discussing an RFID system deployment, but these considerations don’t necessarily erase any chance of RFID success. Depending on the specific environmental concerns, there are usually a few ways to mitigate the problems and ensure a successful RFID application.
Mitigating Metal – Metal reflecting RF waves is one of the most common sources of interference experienced with RFID. The interference occurs because of the movement and reaction of electromagnetic waves with other surfaces, also called multipath. In other words, RF waves sent from the reader/antenna to the tag collide with objects or other RF waves causing refraction, diffraction, absorption, null zones, or extended read zones.
If a long read range isn’t necessary, Low-Frequency (LF) or High Frequency (HF) RFID may be a solution instead of Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) RFID because these two frequency ranges perform better around metal (this is especially true with LF RFID). If longer read ranges are necessary, incorporating metal-mount tags onto metal items and introducing RF blocking materials or shielding are two ways to improve the functionality of an RFID system.
Mitigating Water – Mitigating problems with water-filled items is less complex than mitigating RFID applications that are exposed to water. Tracking items that are filled with liquid including bottles, barrels, and even the human body can be done if the right precautions are taken. For example, adding a small piece of foam between the tag and the water-filled item can usually improve read range significantly.
RFID tags and equipment that are exposed to water pose an entirely different problem. Hardware exposed to water will typically need a higher IP rating and, if an RFID reader is involved, sheltered from direct water exposure. This can be accomplished with the use of antennas and cables rated for outdoor use and, for readers, weatherproof enclosures. Additionally, RFID tags exist that are rugged enough to be exposed to water, like rain and snow, without a problem, but they are more expensive than inlays or paper RFID tags.
Underwater RFID applications are few and far between. The only type of RFID tag that can be read through water is a tag that uses magnetic coupling to communicate with the reader, such as LF technology. Even then, the read range will not exceed more than a few centimeters and should be thoroughly tested before implementation.
Besides water and metal, other factors, such as magnetic fields, may also play a major role in affecting an RFID system. The best way to determine how much read range an RFID system will receive is through thorough testing. It is also a smart idea to map out the area to get a better understanding of where RF waves might reflect, refract, or absorb.
3. When your budget is below a certain threshold
RFID is a technology that has the ability to change the way that people interact with items, but it comes with a cost. Over the years, RFID tags and hardware have gone down in price and have become more accessible to consumers; however, the technology is still not inexpensive enough to justify buying a system without first calculating the potential return on investment.
Most RFID systems are different and can include an array of hardware options, from a couple of fixed readers, antennas, and GPIO adapters, to one handheld reader with a built-in antenna. Before purchasing any system, it is important to understand the general cost breakdown for an RFID system.
Start-up (i.e. near-term) costs and recurring (i.e. long-term) costs are both very important to consider. Start-up costs are described as the amount spent to get an RFID system up and running as well as integrated with current systems. Start-up costs include readers, tags, software, and other hardware equipment. Recurring costs such as software contracts, and consumables are costs that reoccur monthly or yearly that keep an RFID system up and running.
Development kits and sample packs of tags are a good way to get started with RFID before investing too much money. Purchasing a development kit and sample pack is a cost-effective way to see if an RFID system could be the solution to the business problem at hand.
4. When the new system needed to be installed yesterday
Unfortunately, RFID is not exactly a “setup and go” technology; so, if an organization determines that RFID is a good fit, then it needs to plan ahead. Failing to plan ahead will usually lead to project delays and increased costs. In the worst case, the project could be ‘scrapped’ altogether if expectations aren’t met quickly enough.
In order to properly implement RFID, consumers must choose the best fit equipment and tags and then test thoroughly. As a best practice, time should be spent before purchasing to fully vet the hardware and tag options available in order to learn about potential pros and cons. After readers and antennas are selected, purchasing a few different types of tags for testing is strongly recommended. Ordering various types in small quantities allows for flexibility during the testing process.
Rushing through purchasing and testing could lead to larger problems down the road. Sometimes the installation and testing can take several weeks or months, but that extra time will pay dividends later.
Most problems can be solved or avoided with extensive brainstorming and planning in advance. If you need help with any predicted or currently experienced RFID challenges, please contact us or comment below.
If you would like to learn more about all things RFID, check out our website or our YouTube channel.