RFID Failed You in the Past? It May Have Improved More Than You Think


Recently, while exhibiting at a trade show, I was approached by a few attendees at the show during the week that asked me the same question – “Why Should We Try RFID Again?” The first time I heard the question, I was caught off guard by the word “again”. After speaking to each individual and walking through the problems they encountered when they used RFID, I was able to shed some light on this question and provide appropriate suggestions. After the conference, I had time to evaluate the conversations I had with these attendees and dig a little deeper into their hesitation to again use RFID to solve their business needs.

When the retail giant  Walmart began testing and deploying RFID in 2003, some global companies with available capital were eager to follow suit. While that lead to a significant boom in demand for UHF RFID, the timing was a little premature for the technology and RFID failed to meet some companies’ expectations. Why does Walmart continue to see success using RFID while some companies experienced failure leaving them hesitant to try again, even a decade later?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question; instead, a few different factors combined indicate that RFID could likely not have accurately and cost-effectively solved their problems 10 years ago. Below are some of the questions I asked the attendees and the average answers I received.

Understand the Facts

  • When did you last try RFID?
  • Most individuals replied that they last tried RFID between 5 – 15 years ago.
  • Describe the problem you were trying to solve.
  • Answers varied, but most individuals replied that they were trying to solve either inventory or asset management problems on a distinct item level.
  • Did you solve the problem? (With RFID or without)
  • Most individuals replied that their problem was never solved. Small changes were made to slightly improve processes, but overall inventory/asset management and accuracy is still a known problem.
  • What was the reason that RFID was unsuccessful?
  • Although cost was a factor, most individuals replied that they were not able to achieve a realistic read range or read rates for the goals of their applications.
  • Were you working with experts in the technology, or relying on a do-it-yourself pick, test, and deploy method?
  • Most individuals replied that they relied on a do-it-yourself testing method and entrusted in-house engineers with the entire project. These engineers started with learning about the basics of RFID and then were given a budget for hardware and a time frame for the project. 
  • What did your testing process look like? How many tags did you use?
  • Most individuals replied that they didn’t know what the testing process looked like, but that a handful of tags were used and tested on specific items.
  • Describe your application environment.
  • Most individuals replied that they were in a typical manufacturing environment or storage warehouse. Typically, the area was described as a large, open environment with metal machinery or metal shelving or racks.
  • If your items were metal or liquid-filled, did you use the appropriate tags?
  • Most individuals were unsure about the exact tag, but said they were relatively certain that metal-mount tags were used as needed.

    A UHF RFID Timeline: 2010 vs. 2020

    Between 2003 – 2006, many companies tested  UHF RFID along with Walmart, leading to a boom in demand. However, some companies waited to see Walmart’s results before starting their own testing. The initial spike, followed by a steady, yet steep climb, resulted in a large number of companies testing UHF RFID between 2005 and 2015.

    Terrel Pruett from  Alien Technology, Vice President, Marketing & Global Reader Sales, shares some insight into UHF RFID in 2005.

    “I have been involved with passive RFID for 18 years, and I’ve been with Alien Technology for 15 [years]. In the beginning, the introduction of the technology was premature, relative to its functionality. Simply put…it didn’t work very well. As late as 2005, with Gen 1 RFID, we were seeing 60% read rates. This is NOT an operational number…this is an EXPERIMENTAL number.

    But, the investment dollars were flowing even as the disillusion was growing among the end users. Both of these things were critical:

    1.Customers were becoming increasingly skeptical of the technology. This had a profoundly negative effect on RFID adoption. Many of these customers wouldn’t consider passive RFID for years thereafter.

    2.The investment capital allowed the RFID manufacturers to invest in Gen 2, along with great improvements in chip and reader technology, which eventually brought us to 95%-100% read rates, 100% of the time.

    Unfortunately, by the time industry reached true operational capability, the early momentum…and its attendant publicity…were gone. Many customers were frozen in 2005 for several years.” – Terrel Pruett, Alien Technology

    In order to successfully show how UHF RFID has grown, we’ll compare and contrast how the technology has grown over the last decade. In order to set the stage, here were some of the biggest technological advances of 2010.

    • Apple released the first iPad and the iPhone 4
    • Samsung released the first Galaxy S phone on the Android platform
    • The first version of the Windows Phone 7 was released
    • The top phone companies were BlackBerry and Nokia
    • The ‘streaming revolution’ had just begun and Netflix was trying to expand to Canada
    • Instagram debuted

    RFID Advancements

    Overall Technology

    UHF RFID has evolved over the years into a better representation of the purported claims from 2005. Joe Hoerl, EVP Smart Industries - America's at  Confidex, shares his insight on why the technology has been forced to “grow up” and prove itself, as well as the pressures manufacturers faced behind the scenes.

    “Over the past 10 years, manufacturers have faced increased market pressure to improve product traceability, improve safety, reduce costs, and deliver just-in-time to their customers. Surge in recent years of online ordering has coupled these market pressures with the demand for individually configured products. RAIN RFID has become the technology of choice for manufacturers to modernize their production and logistics process to keep pace with consumer expectations.” – Joe Hoerl, Confidex

    Let’s look at how UHF RFID as a technology has grown over the past 10 years.

    Universal Standards - In 2004, the first standard for UHF RFID was created and has been continually supplemented and refined over the years, with a large update in 2015 introducing Gen2 v 2.0 or G2V2. Without standards that basically contain technological specifications and guidelines, no two companies could work together with RFID.

    RAIN Alliance - In 2014, the RAIN Alliance was founded, which was one of the biggest advances in the industry. The alliance promotes universal standards, adoption, and helps bring UHF RFID manufacturers and industries together to achieve a shared goal of worldwide adoption.

    New ‘Upper’ EU Band - The RAIN Alliance created a new, Upper EU Band which operates within the range of 915 – 921 MHz. This is significant for companies with a global presence who need to deploy solutions worldwide. Now, the same FCC tags and antennas can be used throughout North American, Europe, and all countries that operate within the 902-928 MHz frequency range.

    Sensor Technology - Around 2015, companies like Smartrac were able to incorporate sensor technology (e.g. temperature and moisture sensing), adding capabilities never seen before to RFID.

    RFID & IoT - RFID systems and tags are an integral part of Internet of Things (IoT) products and devices, benefiting the technology as a whole.

    “More RFID system integrators and reader manufacturers are enabling RFID readers to present as an IoT device, abstracting away from low level commands and vendor-specific SDKs[Software Development Kits].

    The use of standard IoT protocols such as MQTT help drive easier, faster, and thus less costly, integration into customer’s existing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Warehouse Management System (WMS) products.” - Lou Parker, Vice President - Strategic Development, at Smart Label Solutions (SLS)

    Increased Read Range & Accuracy - Due to increased tag sensitivity, and increased reader sensitivity, read rate, and transmit power, read range and read accuracy are improving year after year. Ranges can be achieved that have never been seen, such as medium-sized inlays read at 60+ feet away, while read accuracy is typically above 99% in most systems - a tremendous difference from the 60% seen in 2005.

    Advancements in RFID Tags

    Smaller Footprint – UHF RFID tags are smaller, thinner, and lighter than ever before. A few tags available today are as small as a grain of rice. 

    Increased Sensitivity – Chipsets are more sensitive than ever before, which means they can be powered from further away and at read angles not possible previously. For example, Impinj’s Monza R6P chipset, released in 2019, has a read sensitivity of -22.1 dBm(2). When compared to the Monza 4 released in 2010 with a read sensitivity of -19.5 dBm (1), this shows an improvement in sensitivity in the R6P chipset by 2.6 dBm.

    New, Unique Tag Options - New tag options are created from:

    New Tag Form Factors - New tag form factors like flag tags, cattle ear tags, and tamper-evident tags.

    “Significant advancements in form factors overcome environmental and physical challenges to tag difficult items. Some examples include the Dura product line offered by Smartrac, which is IP68 rated and ATEX compliant. Leading designs such as the DogBone are incorporated into this product structure, allowing for best-in-class performance with the versatility and ruggedness for demanding applications at a lower cost than traditional hard tags.“ Loren Miller, Manager, Industrial Sales, Smartrac, an Avery Dennison Company

    New Antenna Designs – New antenna designs like in the Avery Dennison Poly Tag and the Alien Tread RFID Inlay, create new ways for power to reach the tag’s IC (integrated circuit). 

    New Integrated Circuits (ICs) – New ICs with increased memory options, improved functionality, new features, and increased accuracy through error prevention.

    Tags Optimized for Liquid-Filled Items – New antenna designs and footprints were tested to create tags that can provide reliable reads on liquid-filled items, something not previously possible because of the incompatibility between UHF RFID and liquids. Tags that demonstrate this are the Smartrac MIDAS FLAGTAG, and the Avery Dennison AD-810r6

    Printable Metal-Mount Labels – Released around 2012 and continuously improved upon, Xerafy, Omni-ID, and Confidex released a series of Metal-Mount Labels that can be printed in specialized RFID Printers. A few examples of these tags are the Xerafy Platinum Metal Skin Label, the Omni-ID IQ 400P, and the Confidex Silverline.

    “As the pioneer and thought leader for printable on-metal RAIN RFID labels, the Confidex R&D team continues to push the boundaries of physics to advance RAIN RFID performance for on-metal labels while reducing product costs for our customers. These advancements have led to the enablement of RAIN RFID labeling of small automotive parts, retail cosmetics, IT Assets, and many other items which previously were considered too challenging for RAIN RFID. “ -Joe Hoerl, EVP Smart Industries - America's at Confidex

    More Attachment & Adhesive Options – Stronger adhesive options for inlays, very-high bond (VHB) foam adhesives for hard tags, and new embedding options ensure tags stay on items longer and more efficiently.

    Lower Cost – UHF RFID tags have lowered in cost over the years to below $0.10 per disposable inlay in high volumes.

    Advancements in RFID Antennas

    Specialized Antennas – Only a few specialized antennas were available in 2010, such as race timing mat antennas and near-field antennas. Today, there is a large number of specialized antennas such as traveling wave antennas, ultra-thin tabletop antennas, doorway antennas, and point-of-sale antennas.

    “One key differentiator for SLS has been the integration of the Wave antennas from Newave Sensor Solutions into our smartPORTAL, smartTUNNEL and smartWAVE products.

    A challenge a decade ago was, not only to read item-level tagged assets at a given read point, but also to not read “stray” tags beyond the designated read point (e.g. dock door, conveyor, etc.); the incredible ability of the Wave antennas to provide an intense-yet-constrained read zone very much elevated our product offering and drove our signing an exclusivity agreement with NSS on the Wave antenna.

    For example, the use of Wave antenna elements in our smartTUNNEL product enables it to read tagged items inside a carton as it conveys through it, not the tagged items in the carton conveying ahead or behind it, without the need for all the heavy shielding which drives up product and shipping costs as well as installation complexity. “ – Lou Parker, Vice President - Strategic Development, SLS

    Smaller Footprints – Antennas are less bulky and lighter than ever before and now come in many shapes and sizes. Some panel antennas even weigh as little as 0.11 lbs.

    Lower Cost – RFID Antennas have reduced in cost from an average of around $250 - $300, to around $150. Some antennas are available now for under $100, which wasn’t common in 2010.

    Advancements in RFID Readers

    Increased Read Sensitivity – In addition to tags, RFID readers are more sensitive than ever before. For example, Impinj’s R700 RFID reader has an increased read sensitivity of -92 dBm compared to previous generation RFID readers, which typically have max read sensitivity rates of about -84 dBm.

    “It’s critical that the RF sensitivity of reader and tag chip components of an RFID system improve hand-in-hand such as they have since, as with any system, it is only as strong as the least effective component. For example, in order to effectively take advantage of a 1dB improvement in tag chip sensitivity, there needs to be a 2dB improvement in the reader sensitivity.“ – Lou Parker, Vice President - Strategic Development, SLS

    Increased Read Rate – A few years ago, most enterprise-level UHF RFID Readers had an average read rate of 750 tags per second or lower. Now, most enterprise-level UHF RFID Readers are able to read between 1,000 – 1,200 tags per second.

    Increased Transmit Power – US FCC regulations state that that power emitted from an RFID system cannot exceed 4 Watts EIRP, or 30 dB. However, around 2015, reader manufacturers found a way to keep within those guidelines, while increasing their reader’s transmit power in order to boost read range. Many manufacturers added 1.5 dB transmit power to readers, for a total transmit power of 31.5 dB, in order to compensate for cable loss between the RFID reader and antenna. Because average cable loss was -1.5 dB or more, systems still transmit 30 dB or less, adhering to FCC regulations.

    Processing Power – Some RFID readers now have processing power built-in.

    “Being able to leverage the RFID reader as an edge processor drives down cost and reduces required bandwidth on a given network; the improvement in memory and processing in today’s RFID readers helps make that feasible. For example, the R700 fixed reader from Impinj offers ten times the internal memory and five times the processing power from a typical fixed reader of a decade ago and drives ability to control up to 32 antenna ports with incredibly fast switching speed. “ – Lou Parker, Vice President - Strategic Development, SLS

    Reader Options at various Price Points – Most readers available in 2010 were at a $1200 price point and up, unless it was a very simple desktop USB reader with a low read range. Today, RFID Readers are available starting at under $500 and are available at a few different price points depending on the intended application.

    More Types Available – UHF RFID Readers are available for specific use cases in 2020, such as SledsReader Modules, Wearable RFID Readers, and Overhead Integrated RFID Readers.

    Additional Connectivity Options – RFID Readers previously had fewer connectivity options, including either a serial or Ethernet connection for data transfer. Now, Wi-Fi, Cellular, and Bluetooth are available for transferring data in certain readers.

    Integration with Smart Devices and Apps – With the addition of Bluetooth connectivity, some readers now can be operated via an app on a smartphone.

    Why Should You Try RFID, Again?

    The simple answer is because you most likely tried it before the technology was ready for your environment or application.

    Many companies still question why the technology worked for Walmart, but not for their applications. If you look closely at  Walmart’s timeline with UHF RFID, it’s evident that RFID wasn’t widely adopted in 2003 or 2005, but it started having more success in 2010 and 2012. The main difference between Walmart and other global companies that tried UHF RFID is that Walmart never gave up or was jaded by the initial testing and results. Instead, Walmart kept with the technology as it grew and waited for it to reach its full potential. Walmart also started deploying in phases, with the initial phase having their suppliers tagging incoming shipments of products with informative data about the shipment. Instead of diving right into inventory tracking, like some global companies, Walmart initially used UHF RFID as a data standard.

    Even in 2010, UHF RFID technology was nowhere near as advanced as it is today. With newer worldwide standards, longer read ranges, higher read rates and accuracy, increased sensitivity, and over double the amount of equipment and tag options, the difference between UHF RFID in 2010 and 2020 is night and day. Not only has the technology as a whole grown, but each individual component of an RFID system has evolved, to boost read rates by 250+ tags per second, read accuracy by 33%, and reader sensitivity by -8 dBm.

    Below are thoughts from RFID industry professionals on why you should consider RFID again.

    Loren Miller, Manager, Industrial Sales, Smartrac, an Avery Dennison Company

    “Performance and reliability. The significant improvements across the RFID ecosystem allow for greater consistency, predictability, and overall success of RFID projects, as demonstrated by the prolific growth of UHF sales.

    Auburn University RFID Labs benchmarking and collaboration with visionary companies like Avery Dennison and Smartrac provide the transparency required for specific tagging applications while certifying the reliable manufacturing and performance of products as outlined by the ARC Quality program. The promises delivered in proof of concepts are more readily achieved in enterprise deployments, thereby shifting the focus from implementation to capturing gains.

    Passive UHF tags' unique role as a low-cost item-level identifier, along with the proliferation of edge computing devices for IoT applications, fundamentally changes how businesses operate, innovate, and go to market. Companies that embrace this digital transformation will prevail as the leaders in their respective markets.”

    Joe Hoerl, EVP Smart Industries - America's, Confidex

    “RAIN RFID systems have drastically changed over the past 10 years as they have transitioned from a non-line-of-sight (NLOS) alternative to barcodes into fully capable systems for real-time locating of assets throughout the manufacturing and supply chain process. Improvements in the RAIN RFID integrated circuits (ICs) have led to increased sensitivity both within readers and tags which has improved tag scan rate, read distance, and performance consistency on a variety of materials (including metals and liquids). These improvements along with advancements in overhead reader antenna arrays have ushered a new era of RAIN RFID as enabler for low-cost tracking of asset location. The contextual value derived with real-time asset location has opened new use cases for RAIN RFID systems and greatly improved the return on investment (ROI) of such systems.”

    Terry Pruett, Vice President, Marketing & Global Reader Sales, Alien Technology

    “Before Covid-19, there was already a strongly developing trend toward passive RFID in manufacturing and logistics. IoT constructs and processes, along with enterprise-wide data analytics, require massive amounts of data, collected perpetually and efficiently. The primary objectives: Maximized inventory accuracy and operational efficiency. Passive RFID is really the only data collection platform that enables this at reasonable cost. Thus, we saw a strong growth pattern for fixed RFID systems in manufacturing centers and distribution warehouses.

    Post Covid-19, this demand for inventory accuracy will only increase due to:

    1.An accelerated shift of retail business from store floors to fulfillment centers, driven by consumer behavioral changes and by rapidly shrinking margins, will put a premium on inventory accuracy.

    2.An inexorable drive for increased overall efficiency in manufacturing and logistics will increase the impact of data analytics in every area of operations: work in process, sector location tracking, returnable item tracking, and dock door ingress/egress.

    With all of these things in mind, this is clearly the time for passive RFID, the most efficient way to collect massive amounts of accurate tracking data perpetually and without human intervention.“

    For more information on all things UHF RFID, and to get an expert’s opinion about if it is time for your company to try UHF RFID again, or for the first time, do not hesitate to  contact us.

    (1)Monza 4 Datasheet Download - https://support.impinj.com/hc/en-us/articles/202756908-Monza-4-RFID-Tag-Chip-Datasheet

    (2)Monza R6P Datasheet https://support.impinj.com/hc/en-us/articles/204793258-Monza-R6-P-Product-Brief-Datasheet