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RFID technology options evolve beyond tags

As basic RFID technology matures, new options are emerging to bring visibility and efficiency to the supply chain. Here are five to keep an eye on.

As radio frequency identification (RFID) technology settles into a comfortable adolescence, a flurry of new variations is starting to emerge beyond the traditional tags. These new technologies include both alternative auto identification capabilities and participants in a broader ecosystem designed to bring increased levels of visibility, efficiency and innovation to the supply chain.

Lower-priced and higher density tags, real-time location capabilities and the addition of sensors are some of the trends pushing traditional RFID options to the next level. The advent of new technologies like cloud computing, ubiquitous communications networks, big data and advanced analytics are also colliding with RFID, promising to give manufacturers real-time insights that aid in better decision making, experts say.

"In order to compete globally in the new world order, there is a strong movement afoot on the use of big data to increase visibility into the supply chain and, by doing so, have an opportunity to unlock value for your business," said Mike Terzich, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Zebra Technologies, a maker of bar code and RFID solutions.

Game-changing RFID technologies

With that goal in mind, here are five RFID technologies with the potential to dramatically alter RFID's course:

Real-time location systems (RTLS). Increasingly blended with active RFID tags, this technology is used to automatically identify and track the location of objects or people in real time. Unlike global positioning dystems (GPS) used outdoors, RTLS is typically deployed to track assets within a building or another contained area. Potential supply chain applications include the ability to track vehicles as they move through an assembly line, pinpointing the exact pallet of merchandise within a warehouse and finding medical equipment or drugs within a hospital setting. "RTLS come into play when you want to know where something is at any point in time," said Don Ertel, senior vice president of operations at CDO Technologies.

Sensors. The integration of sensors with RFID is already having a significant impact of the technology's value proposition, and experts expect capabilities in this area to evolve significantly over time. Adding sensors to RFID tags is relatively inexpensive, they say, and can deliver big benefits, allowing companies to track things like temperature, humidity, light and chemical interactions during the lifecycle of a product.

Consider the example of produce en route to retailers when the refrigeration system in the truck suddenly becomes faulty. "Now, you can start monitoring where things are and what condition they are in," said Lou Chauvin, an independent RFID consultant. "By understanding the condition of the product state in real time, you can start affecting supply-chain decisions. There is no point in that truck continuing its journey to the retailer if the product is damaged."

Holograms. The rise of counterfeiting, particularly in the pharmaceuticals sector, has opened the door for greater use of hologram technology in the supply chain. Holograms are an optical medium that can store and encode a fairly sizable amount of product tracking information as well as other data forms. "The industry is always looking for ways to secure the supply chain, and holograms give you quite a bit to work with," said Terzich, specifically citing a popular use case for tracking high-value drugs as a means to ensure authenticity.

Beyond security applications, holograms' ability to store greater and more varied amounts of data make them a higher capacity alternative to 2D PDFs, rather than a direct replacement for RFID technology, explained Craig Harmon, president and CEO of Q.E.D. Systems, which writes standards for data collection.

Smart dust. Described by some as a nano-scale version of RFID, this system of many tiny sensors or microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) can track conditions like light, temperature and vibration, communicating the data over a computer network wirelessly. Unlike RFID tags, which are relatively large by comparison, smart dust is extremely tiny and embedded into the product or area that's being tracked. It's not only invisible to the human eye; because there are literally hundreds of smart dust sensors spread across a surface or area, there is automatic redundancy in terms of safeguarding information, experts say.

While smart dust has existed in the lab for some time, there is little current activity applying the technology to real-world supply chain applications, according to Steve Halliday, president of High Tech Aid, a technology consulting company. "We've been hearing about smart dust for a long time, but we're still not seeing anything because the technology isn't there yet," Halliday said. "We need to do more clever things around antennas and enhance the capabilities of chips talking to chips." The goal of smart dust, according to Halliday, is to "allow us to create networks of tags and provide information in a much more fluid manner."

Internet of Things. The Internet of Things is an amalgamation of sensors, RFID, cloud computing, advanced analytics, big data, wireless, mobile and other technologies that create a network of smart devices, all with unique identifiers and all with the ability to communicate information and conditions over the Internet or similar wide area network.

As applied to the supply chain, the Internet of Things has grand possibilities, experts say. The technology would allow for machine-enabled decision making. This, in turn, could lead to improved rerouting of shipments based on inventory and real-time demands, greater self-diagnostics and self-repair capabilities and more efficient end-of-life disposal.

"Rather than what's the next up and coming technology, we are on the cusp of having a wholesale change in how we deal with auto-ID technology and that is the concept of the Internet of Things," said Ertel. "This is the combination of all the technology out there and using it in a smarter, more efficient fashion."

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