RFID: Evolving Into an Enterprise Solution

Aug. 1, 2003
New RFID innovations may open the door to broader-based RFID solutions in the retail and business sectors.
It's a tempting pit into which to throw oneself. We've all felt our minds tugged towards it, and most of us at least once have jumped at it headlong. We've all been tempted at some point in the past two years to begin a speech, an article, even a simple observation about security with the allusion that the September 11 terrorist attacks are responsible for all recent changes in this industry. The connection is so clear-cut that most of us don't even stop to consider such comments anymore, two years later. Perhaps we should.

Now before you brand me treacherous or insensitive, please understand I don't intend to degrade the significance of the event in business, political or cultural terms. September 11 of course marked a major shift in America's perception of security risk and tolerance of security enhancements. It also increased spending in a few narrow sectors and fostered development of some new products, notably in bio/chem protection. But most of today's rising technologies—digital video and recording, advanced transmission methods and wireless applications, to name a few—were beginning their ascent before September of 2001, and some of those have enjoyed little sales or development boost from the homeland security craze.

The point is, it's important not only to recognize but also to plainly acknowledge and even emphasize that security was evolving and was meaningful before our national tragedy occurred. Tolerance for and interest in security measures due to war and terror in this country are already quickly on the wane. If we don't make this distinction now—if security doesn't begin to stand on its own two feet again and stop leaning rhetorically on a cultural soft spot—what will happen to public perception of security when 2001 is five years past, or 10, or 15? Will we allow it to fade back into the depths of minds more interested in reality TV, chain e-mails, and getting to work on time?

In the hope of staving off that eventuality, I begin the meat of this article with the assertion that homeland security is only one of many factors that have combined to make one particular technology—radio frequency identification—an enterprise-wide solution. RFID technology now pervades our everyday lives, so much so that it frequently goes unnoticed. Since its turn-of-the-century beginnings, we've used it as a theft deterrent in retail establishments and a method of hands-free identification at sensitive facilities. In the past several years it has frequently begun to appear in less familiar areas as well, such as vehicle access and cargo/ supply chain management. New products abound, making it possible to use RFID across the spectrum in the retail and business sectors.

A Short History of RFID
Gugliemo Marconi's difficult but successful radiotelegraphic transmission of a single Morse Code letter from the UK to Newfoundland in 1901 quickened the development of an already burgeoning theory on radio transmission. Only 20 years later, broadcast radio was becoming regular entertainment in the average American household. As the study of radio and electromagnetic waves continued, it was discovered that they were handy for more than communication. Radar technology used radio waves in locating devices, determining the speed and positions of objects by analyzing the waves' reflection patterns. The technology came into its own during World War II, when it was considered an indispensable asset to the Allies. RFID, which combines the qualities of radio transmission and radar, underwent theoretical and experimental development for the next two decades, then jumped into the market in the 1970s.

In the Retail Sector
* EAS. The first commercially available application of RFID was a solution called electronic article surveillance. The purpose of the solution was mainly theft deterrence; by attaching RF tags to merchandise and posting sensors at the door, store staff could be alerted when an unpurchased item was removed from the premises. The EAS systems, both components of which—tags and sensors—were highly visible, also alerted potential thieves to the presence of a security program and discouraged them from shoplifting. These systems have been proven effective in reducing shrinkage. Checkpoint and Sensormatic (now a unit of Tyco Fire & Security) were two of the first companies to enter the RF-EAS commercial market in the late 1960s, and they still lead in the market today.

Walking into some retail establishments, one may get the impression not much has changed since the '70s. Particularly in clothing stores, you may still see the clunky, beige EAS tags you've been accustomed to for years. If you're like me, you've at least once had the experience of buying a fancy coat or dress and driving home only to find that the clerk left that clunky tag on. And, if you're like me, you may actually have tried to remove it with household tools (hammers, specifically) rather than drive all the way back to the store, which resulted in either an irreparable tear in the garment or a permanent ink stain. Such situations exemplify some of the drawbacks of the older types of EAS systems.

The damage these tags may cause to merchandise is a concern for retailers, as is the tags' obtrusive appearance, which many argue discourages impulse buying. Though the larger tags prevent or discourage shoplifting because they are clearly visible, that quality also makes it easier for innovative thieves to thwart the system—some have been known to leave stores with armsful of merchandise stowed in aluminum-lined shopping bags, which interfere with the transmission between sensor and tag.

In vendors' attempts to shake the clunky-tag blues, they integrated thin RF circuits into small, disposable labels that can be attached to merchandise such as CDs and electronic equipment. Even the reusable tags have become smaller and more manageable, and are now sometimes imprinted with the retailer's logo to make them more attractive to the consumer. However, the real future of the RF-EAS tags may lie within the merchandise itself.

* Source Tagging. Manufacturers and retailers now collaborate in the practice of source tagging. Source tagging solutions allow RF circuits to be embedded into packaging or merchandise itself at the point of packaging or production. Proponents of source tagging say that it will further reduce shrinkage—more items will be able to be tagged, for one—and reduce the labor cost involved in tagging at the retail location. Also, because source tags are not attached to the outside of products, they don't interfere with packaging logos and graphics, thus theoretically increasing brand recognition for the manufacturer. However, some retailers, specifically those still using the less sensitive but effective microwave technology, are unwilling to invest in the RF equipment necessary to participate in source tagging. Source tagging is widespread among pharmaceuticals and packaged products now, but the apparel market isn't yet ready to embrace source tagging due in part to a higher degree of complexity in integrating the tags into the merchandise at the source.

* EPC. Another initiative that resembles source tagging but encompasses a wider scope of use is the electronic product code initiative. This is born of the idea that an RFID-based electronic product code (EPC) can eventually replace the traditional bar-code UPC markers, providing the capability to track full shipments in detail through their shipping routes. In its most advanced form, EPC, an initiative spearheaded by the Auto-ID Center, would begin with the source tagging of each product. When the products were packed to be shipped, a separate RFID tag could be attached to each palette. Readers positioned in loading docks at the plant and at shipping destinations would identify the products on the palettes and provide that information to a server that tracks them through their route. EPC would allow retailers to automatically load new inventory into their systems as it is checked in. It would also allow shippers to recall shipments that have been damaged or tampered with even before they reach their destination. In a futuristic sense, it would even allow customers to automate their checkout process—readers near the store's exit would pick up individual EPCs in a customer's cart and announce the total cost of the items, at which point the customer could simply swipe a credit card for that amount and leave the store.

Some entities are currently using such RFID tracking on the palette and carton level, but it will likely be some time before individual product items fit into this scheme. When they do, however, it will open the door to integrate retail security, inventory management and cargo tracking into one, automated process. One possible future scenario was demonstrated at the Retail Systems 2003 convention in Chicago in June. Checkpoint Systems, PSC Inc. and Mirasys Communications collaborated to produce the "smart checkout," in which they demonstrated a single scanner equipped to both read RFID/EPC technology and bar codes and to deactivate EAS tags. This scenario foretells a quicker retail checkout procedure and an option for a slow and less painful transition from older technologies to EPC.

In the Business Sector
* Building Access. Traditional RFID for access control needs little introduction. Since its initial break onto the scene in the '80s, use of RFID for physical access has grown quickly and dramatically. The most commonly used form of RFID for building access is the 125kHz frequency, commonly called proximity or prox. It offers many benefits, particularly for large or highly sensitive facilities. For one, it gets employees through the door more quickly, since prox readers are faster than magstripe readers and employees don't have to go through the extra step of sliding the card through them. It's also more difficult to counterfeit a prox card than a magstripe, so the very format of the card leaves a facility less vulnerable to intrusion. In fact, prox cards and fobs can be designed to include no identifying marks on their facades, so if a credential is lost or stolen, the thief may not even be able to determine where to use it.

But prox isn't only for highly sensitive facilities. Smaller, non-sensitive facilities also benefit from the technology. The Atlanta Opera, for instance, uses prox keyfobs and readers for access to and within its headquarters facility. Though the readers are more expensive to install than magstripe, they offer long-term savings in maintenance. Because there is no contact between credential and reader, the cards don't wear out and neither do the reader heads. Some small facilities with high turnover find great benefit in the ability to reprogram credentials for new employees and avoid the cost of replacing them.

The biggest new development in the building access control arena is the bridling of the 13.56MHz frequency for access control. Several key manufacturers introduced this technology in early 2002, and others have followed quickly behind, creating a frantically competitive environment. The 13.56MHz credential is a contactless smart credential. It is read/write, has a much higher data transfer rate than traditional prox, and offers a longer read range. This credential essentially offers the benefits of contactless technology with the ability to store greater amounts of information, such as a biometric template. Some of the 13.56 manufacturers are still beta testing their products, and those that have begun to ship haven't yet seen an explosion of prospects. Much of this is probably due to the increased expense of smart card installations and the ever-present legacy systems argument. But technology development is a slow process, said Debra Spitler, vice president of marketing for ASSA ABLOY's Identification Technology Group. "I think we have to be realistic and say prox is going to remain strong because the installed base is so huge," she said. "But over time people who are using magstripe—which is considered to be a non-secure technology for access control because of the ease of duplicating a magstripe card—will eventually start an upgrade process, and I think they'll jump over prox and go to 13.56."

* Lot and Vehicle Access. The 902 to 928MHz RFID frequency is generally used for automatic vehicle identification—the same thing that fast-tracks you through the toll booth on your EZPass while you laugh maniacally at all those schmucks waiting in line to throw their change in the bucket. AVI has been used for quick toll applications since its first installation on an Oklahoma highway in 1991. Since then, the prices have consistently dropped, making the solution more accessible to less moneyed entities. Corporations often use AVI to control automobile access into and out of their lots. Authorized employees are issued AVI tags—often windshield stickers with embedded circuits—that interact with readers at lot or garage exit and entry points to raise and lower the access barrier or arm.

A more recent innovation in this area involves not a vehicle's access to an area, but a driver's access to a vehicle. Keyless entry is now almost a given in new automobiles—they all come with the little battery-powered remote control that unlocks your car from your balcony and terrifies your friends with its panic mode. But RFID keyless entry and ignition solutions may make controlling access to a vehicle even simpler.

Three years ago FedEx began using custom-made vehicles and issuing their drivers RFID wristbands. Drivers of these vehicles need only hold the wristband near the driver's-side door to unlock it. Then the courier can press a button on the dash to start the car—no keys, less downtime, more security, more efficiency. Corporations could use this same solution to control access to company cars.

* Building Asset Management. Asset tracking and management have become more important to businesses since the laptop's popularity exploded. Controlling access to a facility doesn't always protect a business' property, particularly from its own employees. But RFID asset tracking solutions have eased such fears.

Also in this month's ST&D, Rich Maurer explores the specifics of RFID asset management solutions and their benefits and drawbacks quite ably, so I won't go further here. I will emphasize, however, that asset management applications for RFID almost invariably offer some form of cross-departmental benefit.

Douglas Cram, vice president of sales and marketing for AWID, cites one example: "One of the big applications we found with our AVI reader has been with a long-term care facility. We can tag wheelchairs." Not only does this protect the asset itself—the wheelchair—it provides additional benefits for the resident. "We're doing elevator call with it; we're also doing standard access control with it. Keep in mind that these are folks who don't have the luxury of being able to move their hands. Most are using the sip and puff devices to operate their wheelchairs. Therefore, mobility is a huge quality of life issue for these folks." By using RFID to provide controlled access and to call elevators to service residents in wheelchairs, management can help those residents navigate the facility more easily, with less strain on their bodies.

RFID has over the century contributed immensely to the security technology market, and its long history has provided it a solid base for future development. It now plays a role in security across the retail and business sectors, and new innovations are clearly on the horizon.

Marleah Blades is managing editor of ST&D. She can be reached at 407-671-3374 or [email protected] .