If you’re like many businesses in retail, manufacturing, restaurants, or logistics, you’re probably facing new RFID tracking requirements from your customers or regulators. That means you’re probably being asked to tag products, components, inventory or shipments with RFID. And, in some cases, you may be asked to set up a complete RFID tracking system as well.
While meeting and adapting to new compliance requirements can be a concern for any business, the good news is that RFID tagging is relatively easy and affordable to get up and running quickly. It can also be a huge benefit to your business, because RFID tracking can help you achieve some staggering savings in labor and cost in many areas, all while providing real-time and accurate visibility into your supply chain, inventory and operations.
In this article, we’ll take a quick look at RFID, what it is, how it works, and why so many companies and regulatory bodies are requiring it. Then we’ll look at how to set up RFID tagging and tracking in your operations, the big benefits and return on investment that you can achieve with it, and how to take your next steps and explore this technology further.
First, let’s start with a quick review of RFID technology, its capabilities and uses, and why it’s become an essential part of supply chain management for everyone from Walmart to the U.S. Department of Defense.
A Quick Overview or Refresher on RFID
RFID, or radio frequency identification, is a tagging and wireless tracking and locating technology that has been around for decades, but it has seen explosive adoption over the past 10 years.
RFID allows individual items, cases, cartons, pallets or other tagged assets to be tagged and tracked using a tiny label embedded with a microchip and a pair of microtransmitters. Instead of using a barcode label, where you need physical access and line-of-sight to a barcode, you can read RFID tags remotely and wirelessly, using RFID readers that rely on radio signals to communicate with each tag.
You print an RFID tag with an RFID printer, which prints and encodes the tag with a unique ID and other information you want to securely store on each tag’s microchip. You then apply the tag to the item you want to track, and you use either a handheld or a fixed-position RFID reader and RFID antennas to remotely and wirelessly identify, track and locate each tag.
With most typical RFID systems, which use passive RFID tags, each tag is powered by the wireless radio waves you use to communicate between your readers, antennas and tags. Those radio signals provide energy that wakes up and powers the tag, allowing its information to be shared remotely and wirelessly with the RFID reader. In some cases, active RFID tags are used, and these contain tiny batteries to provide continuous power, allowing RFID tags to wake themselves up at periodic intervals and send information to nearby readers.
The whole process works much like Wi-Fi, which also uses radio waves. But you’re not using those radio waves to beam an Internet signal and deliver the latest cat videos to your smartphone. Instead, you’re using radio waves to communicate between tagged items and readers, so you can not only identify large numbers of assets but also quantify, track and locate them, to an accuracy of within a few feet.
Major Benefits of RFID
RFID is gaining widespread adoption and is becoming the subject of many new compliance requirements for very good reasons. Here are a few of the biggest benefits:
With RFID, you can identify, count, and update the status and location of thousands of items—and even an entire warehouse—with minimal human labor and effort. With fixed-position RFID systems, where RFID readers are placed at dock doors, in warehouse aisles, or at other key strategic points to read tags automatically as they move past or within range of the readers, you can even create an entirely automated tracking and locating system that requires virtually zero human labor.
In the end, this means you can manage and locate inventory, valuable assets, and work in process with unprecedented efficiency and accuracy. In real-world case studies conducted by the University of Auburn’s RFID lab, businesses have achieved up to 95% or better inventory accuracy while improving their picking and shipping accuracy by as much as 80%. And their receiving time has improved by up to 90%.
Given these kinds of numbers, it’s no wonder that thousands of businesses and even government agencies around the world have been adopting RFID and are now requiring suppliers to start using RFID tags to help them achieve these results. But it’s a two-way street: RFID isn’t just a potential benefit for those mandating it; it can enable the same benefits for suppliers who start using it in their own operations.
What’s Required for RFID and How Much It Costs
The good news for suppliers who need to meet RFID mandates is that you can do this relatively quickly, easily and affordably, using Zebra RFID printers and tags. These are gold standard in the RFID industry for printing RFID tags.
Depending on the volume of tags you need to print and encode, you can use an industrial RFID printer for high volumes or a desktop or mobile RFID printer for much smaller batches. In most cases, we recommend Zebra’s industrial devices, as most suppliers who are subject to compliance mandates need to print many thousands of tags, often in tough industrial environments, so an industrial printer is often the smartest investment.
Industrial RFID printers typically cost between $1,000 to $4,000, depending on the model and the capabilities and features you need. Desktop and mobile RFID printers typically cost around $350 to $650, again depending on the model and feature set.
Passive RFID tags cost as little as 5 to 15 cents each, and these are typically the only type of tags you need to meet compliance mandates. However, if you need or prefer to use an active RFID system with self-powered tags, with potentially much better long-range capabilities, you should expect to pay far more for your tags. They can cost as much as $10 to $25 per tag, but typically these are only used in cases involving very high-value assets.
Typically, suppliers only need to print and apply tags to meet required mandates. Once you’ve printed and applied tags to items, cartons, pallets or shipments per customer or regulatory mandates, you’re done. So you can meet compliance mandates for as little as a few thousand dollars in up-front costs, plus some ongoing tag costs for printing and encoding additional tags over time.
If you want to start using RFID to track and locate your inventory, assets and work in process in your own operations, then you’ll need to invest in RFID readers, antennas, and software. Those can easily add up to tens of thousands of dollars in additional costs, but the resulting benefits in real-time inventory accuracy and locating, and reduction in supply chain labor and cost, often pay for the investment in as little as a few months. In the long term, there is typically a huge bottom-line benefit that pays for itself many times over.
But you don’t have to implement a complete RFID tracking system to meet compliance mandates or get started. You can start with a simple RFID tagging system and later expand your use of RFID if and when it makes sense for your business.
Taking Your Next Steps with RFID
If you’re facing compliance mandates right now or in the near future, the time to act is now. Our team at Vantage ID has designed, deployed and helped companies unlock the benefits of RFID solutions for nearly 15 years, and we can help you get started.
To learn more about RFID, download our quick infographics on the How RFID Works and How Companies are Using It and the Advantages of RFID. You can also download our eBook: Now is the Time for RFID. To find out the best and most affordable ways to get started and get compliant, you can also contact us now to schedule a free consultation at your convenience. We’re always happy to help.