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What is item-level RFID, and how can companies benefit from it?

In this expert response, learn how RFID is evolving and what companies can do to make item-level RFID a success.

Single-item RFID is becoming more popular at all levels of the supply chain. What is it exactly, and how do its IT requirements differ from other uses of RFID?

Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology has been in use for decades. The holy grail for many organizations was item-level RFID to provide intelligence and locating. For RFID to work at all, though, the infrastructure surrounding processes such as supply chain management, asset tracking and authentication had to be changed. This required an organization's various sites to have RFID readers, and that required upgrading from traditional auto-identification technologies such as bar coding and replacing handheld scanners, fixed-reader infrastructure and often Wi-Fi.

Due to typical migration challenges and other costs, RFID was at first used conservatively for cartons, pallets and reusable totes. But today, prices are lower and users have more experience with the technology. Use cases with impressive results are now the norm, and item-level RFID can be more easily achieved.

The term Internet of Things was made popular by the MIT Auto-ID center in the early 2000s. MIT and its sponsors -- technology firms; standards groups; and enterprises such as retailer, consumer and healthcare goods companies -- teamed up to find an economical approach to item-level RFID.

Item-level RFID is about tagging the lowest, most unique unit for sale or use. An item can be a product, a patient, a tool, a bus pass, a pet, a single document and so on. When items are aggregated or clustered together in a carton, we do not consider the carton an item, because it may contain many units -- or none. Carton tracking and scanning can tell you a box has arrived, and you may assume what is in it, but it may be empty. Tagging each unit provides more accurate data about the contents of the box.

Requirements at an item level need to be thought of in three ways:

1. Use cases. These will dictate the types of RFID tags and standards required and which business applications can take advantage of the data. Research shows that the primary reason for the failure of a RFID project is a lack of clear objectives and use cases at the pilot phase.

2. Data standards. Various standards exist (ISO and GS1) for items such as livestock vs. apparel and general merchandise, item vs. carton, and pallet; passive items vs. active RFID items; those with e-seals; and so on. ISO has the most complete global portfolio of standards because they traverse all industries, as opposed to GS1, which is more focused on those industries that ultimately sell to consumers. However, they are compatible standards.

3. Wireless reader infrastructure. Depending on the environment, the process and so on, the reader network may look very different. This is a technical topic all unto itself.

Today, associations with information on RFID (such as AIM, RAIN and the MIT RFID Group), as well as available research can help those new to RFID decide what kind of business value it might offer. Seek out companies that specialize in RFID deployments that can point to valid, tested applications. Steer clear of novices or general practitioner consultants who do not have the RFID expertise.

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