All About RFID

What is RFID?

In the simplest terms, Radio Frequency ID - RFID, for short - is the transmission of data via radio waves from a special tag to an antenna and then to a computer for management purposes. The information in the data can be extensive product information, or it could simply be the "key" to a larger record in a database of products. The data can give managers information on the product itself, or handling information (such as when it was manufactured, shipped, delivered, etc.), or even information about the use of the product. Unlike traditional barcodes, RFID tags can hold vastly more data.

The beauty of RFID is that it doesn't depend on "line of sight" or "contact" scanning by a reader, therefore saving time and effort to get the information. In addition, the data volume it can hold is significantly higher, so managers can have more information with which to make important handling and tracking decisions.

For an excellent introduction to RFID and the Electronic Product Code network, use the links below. Each Adobe Acrobat (.PDF) file will launch in a new browser window. (Files were downloaded from the AutoIDCenter web site, which was closed in the Fall of 2003.)

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History of RFID

Radio waves have been used to transmit data since Guglielmo Marconi began experimenting with voice transmissions in the late 1800s, culminating with his famous experiment in December, 1901 that transmitted a radio signal from Canada to England, ushering in a new era in communications.

During World War II, the Allied Powers used radio signals to identify aircraft, called "Identification, Friend or Foe," or "IFF" for short. IFF is still in use today to control civilian and military aircraft around the world.

Since World War II, radio communications have become ubiquitous, and RFID has been used in agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, healthcare, and other industries. Some uses include locating livestock, tracking high-value shipments by truck, allowing automobiles to make automatic payments at gas stations and at toll booths on highways, tracking products as they're produced and delivered, keeping tabs on newborn babies in hospitals, and hundreds of other applications.

RFID Trends

In the past two years, considerable attention to RFID has been given, thanks to initiatives by several giants in the retailing and defense industries. These initiatives have forced manufacturers to design and produce new equipment, integrators to design new processes for specific operations, and end-user companies to consider new and innovative ways to implement RFID operations.

WalMart, Target, Proctor & Gamble and Other Retailers

In late 2003, WalMart told its top 100 suppliers that it would require them to use Electronic Product Code (EPC) RFID tags on pallets delivered to WalMart no later than January 2005. This "mandate" stirred the RFID world because WalMart is such a huge retailer. Target and Proctor & Gamble quickly followed suit with initiatives of their own.

The goal is to have 100 percent read rates on pallets passing through WalMart's doors. Since the "mandate," companies have tried to comply despite some daunting technological challenges, and WalMart maintains that it is "on track" for it's January, 2005 deadline. Some of the problems faced include read-rates that are not quite up to the 100 percent goal, optimized antenna placement and orientation, and problems with certain products - such as liquids or metal cans - which tend to distort RFID signals.

Links to some WalMart articles for further reading. (Links will launch in a new browser window):

General Electric

General Electric - or GE, to most people! - plans to use RFID to revolutionize its supply chains and track high-value assets within the company. One security initiative uses a handheld device to arm and disarm a container security device (CSD), which could ensure the integrity of containers used to ship 90 percent of all international cargo.

Department of Defense

The U.S. Department of Defense jumped on the RFID bandwagon, hoping RFID technology would lead to better logistical management of supplies for troops and operations. One interesting aspect of the U.S. DoD initiatives is the possible use of RFID without much of the usual "cost consciousness" of private industry, perhaps leading to new and unexpected processes and operational parameters that might not be possible in private industry.

RFID Applications



Click here to find out how RFID can be used in a wide variety of applications.


Click here to read Frequently Asked Questions about RFID.


Click here to view important terms and definitions you may hear about RFID.

RFID Planner

Find out how to start planning for your own RFID System, the things to watch for, some important considerations, and steps and tips for a smooth implementation.