RFID needs a little help from friends

Perhaps the ultimate potentially enabling technology for RFID is wireless mesh networking, which would free RFID tags from having to communicate with one or a few readers or antennas.

By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

RADIO FREQUENCY identification (RFID) has no role in control and automation. It’s a fancy pants documentation technology that might be useful in material handling, logistics and inventory, but its tags can’t directly gather physical information, transmit it back to a decision-making location, or receive subsequent orders and actuate changes. Besides, if all you need is documentation, then you might as well use cheaper, increasingly intelligent barcodes. If you need updated physical data, then you should use traditional radios and/or transceivers. Even hockey puck-sized RFID has been used for years in automotive and other big-ticket production tracking. There’s no practical window for RFID in discrete applications, right? Umm…wrong.

Presently far-less-expensive than radios, RFID tag prices and related component costs are dropping into the barcode ballpark. This makes RFID attractive and practical in ever-smaller-ticket applications.

Decreasing cost is one mollifying factor, but it might be a combination of assists from other technologies that give RFID the ability to survive and thrive in control and automation. These already can take the form of production line monitoring systems, which often are networked these days, and can operate in conjunction with RFID tags and readers to certify that a product successfully passed through a machine process. This might be an indirect indication of a physical change, but it gets the job done.

However, not content to let RFID, radios, barcodes, piezoelectric energy gathering, wireless mesh networking and other methods exist separately, developers are blending them in search of the most useful tools. For example, Jeff Braid reports that his firm, Rhizone Inc., partners with Coronis Systems to combine a temperature sensor, RFID module, and 25-mW radio in a Wavetag unit that can send and receive signals from two to 200 m; store up to 2 kilobits of data; and change RFID parameters as needed.

Likewise, Jack Pardee, Nanotron Techologies’  midwest technical sales manager, reports his firm uses piezo fiber and a 2.45-GHz “Chirp waveform” in its active RFID device, which includes a temperature sensor, surface-mount antenna, and radio capabilities. John Lampe, Nantron’s business development vice president, adds that RFID provides physical and location awareness, which, in turn, helps users set up and maintain their wireless networks. “RFID tags still are very new, but as prices go down, the barriers to using them also will go down,” adds Lampe.

Michael Kessler, Pepperl+Fuchs’ components and technology director, says use of RFID also will increase because it allows for more flexible, more customized manufacturing and better quality checking. “Other manufacturers want the same capabilities that RFID enables in making cars, such as picking leather seats on a per-unit basis and being able to track them through the process,” he says. “What we’re doing is getting RFID ready for industrial environments.”

In fact, Kessler adds that P+F already uses RFID to help make its own printed circuit boards (PCBs). For example, an RFID antenna reads the tag attached to a board, which loads the required program into its PCB machine, and the machine then places the proper components on the board. That’s clearly a machine builder type of application.

Randy Klassen, Omnex Control Systems’ sales and marketing vice president, says his company is working with a truck fleet that already has Omnex wireless remote control units installed, but is investigating adding RFID tags to them. This would allow the vehicles’ on-board units to download daily activity data at night, as well as let a fleet manager know which pieces of equipment are in the vicinity of a particular plant. Similarly, an RIFD system and a radio base station could be jointly used to tell delivery trucks arriving at a store or warehouse the latest information on what to unload. That’s not a direct path to industrial OEM needs, but suggests that the diversity of possible applications is relentlessly expanding.

Steve Leschin, business development director at Advanced Cerametrics, states that added RFID functions help extract data logs from silicon chips. For example, embedding an RFID-enabled piezo chip in a motorcycle helmet could be used to document any physical changes or damage it experiences over longer time periods, and aid in potential liability situations. However, perhaps the ultimate potentially enabling technology for RFID is wireless mesh networking. The many points or nodes that mesh promises would free RFID tags from having to communicate with one or a few readers or antennas, enhance RFID’s data reading and writing capabilities, and enable far more widely distributed applications.