„Product twin“ on the Internet thanks to RFID

Peter Altes, Managing Director of the AIM-D. e.V. association, explains in an interview how RFID differs from barcodes and where it can be expediently used.

The alternative to the tried and tested and still common optical identification via barcode & Co is radio frequency identification (RFID). What is the difference?

Both barcodes and RFID are used to identify products, or in other words to encode them and then to read out these codes again, i.e. to identify them, in order to link these data purposively in an IT system. Coding and identification take place in all AutoID technologies, whether optically as with barcodes, or electronically with radio waves as with RFID.

However, if you have more complex requirements such as bulk recording or the often quoted lot size 1 (editor’s note – special production), if there is no visual contact, if the amount of data to be communicated or the reading distance is large, or if you not only want to read out data but also store it again so that additional information is available at the next reading point, then you cannot do this with a barcode, but instead only with RFID transponders.

Do you have a concrete example of this?

Yes, the cold chain, for example. There is a new trend towards linking auto-ID with sensor technology. The temperature of the chilled goods is constantly measured –  When leaving the cooling chamber, when loading onto trucks, after transport breaks, when delivering to the retailer’s cold store. This means that data is read out and new data is stored, which makes it possible to check afterwards whether the cold chain has been interrupted or not.

Could RFID replace the barcode if RFID transponders become cheaper and cheaper?

Basically: no, but in certain areas of application: yes. On the one hand, however, it remains to be seen whether the whole system can be obtained at the same price, especially since the reading processes, database structures and the larger amounts of data involved in RFID are already more complex in themselves. On the other hand, the question arises as to whether I need this capability for my purposes at all.

If the barcode still works for me in 20 years, which corresponds to the life cycle of a packaging machine, I don’t have to switch to RFID now just because it can transmit more data, though I don’t need this extra data for my purposes at all.

However, if someone builds a new plant for high-grade products such as smartphones, computers, etc., then the inclination to work with RFID is of course greater than to work with a mail processing line.

Recently there has been a lot of talk and many articles about the use of NFC transponders. How can NFC be classified in the context of RFID?

NFC is RFID! There are three central frequency ranges in RFID: Low Frequency (LF), High Frequency (HF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF). These frequency ranges have different performance characteristics with regard to range, transmission rates and susceptibility to interference.

For marketing reasons, the HF field has been given its own name, namely Near Field Communication (NFC). As the name suggests, it is necessary to be very close to the source to read it. This is therefore not suitable for warehousing, for example. NFC is more likely to be used in consumer applications such as payment and ticketing, or for electronic nameplates for devices, machines or the like.

There are currently efforts to give the UHF sector a name of its own, namely RAIN (Radio frequency IdentificatioN). RAIN technology offers high transmission rates and ranges of up to six meters for passive transponders and up to 100 meters for active transponders with their own power source.

Where and how are such RAIN transponders used?

One idea, for example, is to equip products, including foods, with RAIN tags and then to set up hotspots in the salesroom. There, the product is held to a reader and, for example, a suitable recipe for the respective food is sent to the mobile phone. RAIN technology is used to connect products to the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things is one of the topics of the future. Will RAIN catch on?

With UHF, i.e. RAIN, we can connect the highest possible number of objects to the Internet of Things in the cheapest, fastest and most suitable way for mass use. If a product is equipped with a RAIN transponder, I have, as it were, a digital twin of this product on the Internet. For example, I learn what it consists of, where it comes from, how long it has been on the road, all the things I can do with it, and so on. –  That is the vision of UHF-RFID. Moreover the cost of these tags can also be merely in the range of Cents. The prospects for RAIN are consequently good.