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RFID & IIoT: How do the technologies work together?

One component driving the growth of IoT systems in industrial settings across the globe has been the evolution of RFID and other sensor technologies. Although Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology has been around for decades, it has found new form in recent years thanks to the advent of IIoT and the fourth industrial revolution.

At its core, RFID finds natural application within the Industrial Internet of Things by helping to track inventory, improve efficiency, and enhance services across a range of sectors. Yet, as manufacturers increasingly look to utilising RFID technologies alongside their IIoT efforts, how exactly will these systems work together and what input could RFID have in the future IIoT?

What is RFID and how does it work?

At its most basic, RFID is the wireless use of radio waves to transfer digital data. There are three main components within the system that facilitate this: tags, antennas, and readers.

RFID tags are small tracking systems that transmit and receive information via an antenna and a microchip. The tags allow users to automatically identify and track inventory and other assets. They can be either battery-operated or passive, yet in an industrial setting, they tend to be passive. This means they don’t have a power supply and are instead powered by electromagnetic energy transmitted from RFID readers.

Working between the tags and readers are RFID antennas. RFID antennas are typically integrated with the RFID readers, supplying energy to the tags and sharing the data between the two components.

The RFID reader is really the brain of the whole system. Readers take in the radio signal created from the tags and convert this into digital information. This information is then sent by readers to the cloud platform for further processing.

What is the purpose of RFID?

RFID was developed during World War II initially as a way to identify friendly aircraft. Since then, it has come a long way and is now used in a wide range of applications. In an industrial context, the purpose of RFID systems is typically to monitor, track, and supervise different assets. 

For example, RFID tags could be attached to merchandise in a warehouse enabling employees to automatically conduct inventories with handheld readers that send the data to the company’s databases. Aside from inventory management and asset tracking, RFID technology can also be used for:

  • Personnel tracking
  • Controlling access to restricted areas
  • ID Badging
  • Supply chain management
  • Counterfeit prevention (e.g. in the pharmaceutical industry or Cigarette distribution)

What is the difference between RFID and barcode?

Given the similarity in design and purpose, RFID tags can often be confused with traditional barcodes. Yet, while both are commonly used for reading and collecting data from assets, their capabilities and how they work differ somewhat.

The key similarity between the two is that data is captured from both by a device which stores the information in a database. However, RFID systems have several key advantages over barcode tracking software. In particular, RFID tags are highly durable, with a long shelf life, far reading distance, encryption and storage information modification. 

Ultimately barcodes are designed to be used on a smaller scale than RFID tags, giving RFID a stronger advantage in an industrial setting. RFID tags come in so many variants to deal with extreme heat or cold conditions, steel or glass and virtually any kind of material, for clothing and overalls and hospital bedding, small or big – you choose the best tag for the job!

IIoT: A hot spot for RFID application

The industrial space is a hotbed for supply chain nightmares. Major logistical inefficiencies are often traced back to manufacturers not having enough visibility into where their sensitive cargo is located and its condition. Together, RFID and IIoT provide real-time access to crucial data such as this and eliminate the root cause of many of these issues.

Through the network of connected RFID tags attached to products, warehouse shelves, and vehicles, IIoT software is able to track the conditions of sensitive goods. The cloud platform at the core of the IIoT system provides storage and analytics capabilities for all data generated by the RFID and sensor technologies. An IIoT platform then takes the information gained from RFID and sensor readings and runs them through analytics algorithms to visualise the findings. Depending on the parameters of the platform, these results could be expressed via dashboards, reports, real-time product location maps, and so on.

Additionally, IIoT solutions often use web or mobile applications to enable streamlined communication with users. For example, if the temperature at a warehouse was approaching a critical threshold these applications would instantly alert staff to the problem. 

The ultimate means to track

RFID and IIoT help to maintain product quality at various segments of the supply chain by monitoring properties of individual product packages. With an RFID and IIoT solution in place, inventory specialists are able to drill down any parameter to get a complete view of the assets on hand. They could learn, for instance, that of 3,000 packages, 800 will expire in 30 days. This means that when the inventory specialist receives the next order of packages they can easily single out which ones have the closest expiration date and ship them first.

To put this into a full-scale perspective, consider this example of how RFID and IIoT could be applied within a dairy industry setting:

A case in point: Optimising cold chain operations

Say a cheese manufacturer introduced a new cheddar product and each carton of the cheddar is packaged with an RFID tag. The ID tags hold all of the relevant data on the packages they are attached to (e.g. the date of production, warehouse location, etc.) and save this information to the IIoT cloud database.

When the manufacturer receives an order for the next 2,000 cartons of cheese, an inventory specialist can then utilise the RFID and IIoT monitoring systems to:

  • Trace the food from source to shelf and even fork to provide accurate information unique to that item to the retailer and client
  • Check if there is enough stock available
  • Determine which packages will need to be sent first (based on expiry)
  • Immediately locate the required cartons within the warehouse
  • Swiftly isolate problems in the manufacturing or logistics process

As a result, warehouse workers can easily find and transport the necessary packages for shipping. At the exits of the shipping area, RFID readers would scan the tags attached to the stock to ensure the correct packages are being shipped. With the integration of the IIoT solution and an order management system, the shipping is automatically recorded upon scanning and logged to assist with future production estimates.

The best of IIoT with IoT.nxt solutions

The evolution of IIoT is coinciding with that of RFID and sensor technologies. Together, these systems can allow users to access live information like never before, bringing forward deep insights for each phase of distribution. 

Whether it’s manufacturing, sales, transportation, retail or agriculture, the IoT.nxt solution can leverage every part of your ecosystem to increase ROI and generate meaningful data. Unlock real-time, condition-based monitoring, predictive maintenance and self-healing system design without replacing existing infrastructure. It’s your business, only better.

Make the most of all data collection and increase the efficiency of your operations, speak with our expert team today.

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