RFID may be one of the most multi-purpose technologies ever invented. Most people are aware of some applications of RFID, but aren’t really aware of the incredibly wide array of different current uses of this technology, what to talk about the potential yet-to-be-conceived uses. Not being aware of its flexibility and potential uses, many people may not seriously consider what RFID can do to improve their specific area of responsibility. To help you understand how RFID may help with your job or function, we are taking a functional view of where and how RFID is being used. In Part 1 of this series, we start with how RFID can be used by product managers and product engineers and designers. Our approach is to look at how RFID has been incorporated into a variety of existing products.
Products with Consumables
One common use of RFID is to ensure that only genuine, non-counterfeit replacement parts or consumables are being used, while adding intelligence to the machine. Keurig’s Vue Brewing System reads the RFID tags in each single-serving container of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate inserted into it. This saves users the step of scrolling through menus to tell the machine what type of beverage they are making. It also, by the way, means that Keurig can ensure that only genuine Keurig beverage packs are being used, rather than third party alternatives. Applied Biosystems’ 3500 Series genetic analyzers use RFID to track the lifespan of consumables they use for genetic research and diagnostics, alleviating the need for manual logging and visual inspection.
Coca-Cola Freestyle touch screen soda fountain lets consumers custom-design their own soft drink. It uses RFID to identify the syrup cartridges, keeping track of the amount of flavoring in each, providing precise consumption data that is used for replenishment purposes, as well as business analytics. In addition, since the batch and lot number of each unit of flavoring are included on the tags, Coke touts it as a way to definitively recall product with precision and speed, if ever needed. Usage information is stored on the RFID chip itself, allowing the consumable packs to be removed and put back in without the system ‘forgetting’ how much has been consumed.
Theft and Counterfeit Prevention
Chipco International decided to embed RFID into its casino chips to track betting, helping its casino clients make sure players’ bets were placed honestly and identify high rollers to offer them complimentary food, drink and hotel stays on the spot. But they also serve a security purpose. The Bellagio didn’t lose a dime when $1.5M worth of its Chipco RFID-enabled chips were stolen. Virtually all casinos now use chips with embedded RFID.
Purdue Pharmaceuticals tags bottles of OxyContin to overcome theft and counterfeiting issues. Embedded RFID offers the potential for anti-counterfeiting for a variety of luxury, pharmaceutical, food, and other often-counterfeited items.
NXP demonstrated a smart washing machine concept prototype. It detects which type of RFID-tagged clothing have been put in it and suggests the proper washing cycle, based on the garments care instructions. It also allows a technician to perform diagnostics with an NFC equipped phone. Unilever created a prototype Smart Kitchen, which reads RFID-tagged food items to tell the consumer what is available on their shelf, builds recipes based on the available products, and creates a shopping list based on products that have been used and thrown away.
Indesit experimented with making RFID-enabled refrigerators, ovens and washing machines. The refrigerator tracked expiration dates, displayed nutritional information, and recipes for items it contained. The oven adjusted cooking and baking levels and times based on instructions from the tags. However, the commercial success of some of these smart appliances is dependent on a critical mass of consumer items (food or clothing in these cases) being tagged with RFID — a classic chicken and egg issue. Other use cases — where the product designer / manufacturer are not dependent on other companies to decide to tag items — proceed much more easily than ideas that require a critical mass of RFID adoption by other firms.
Products Requiring Process Controls and Maintenance Tracking
Products that have process and/or maintenance requirements can benefit greatly from RFID. This includes products that must be sterilized before reuse, or calibrated after a certain time period, or go through certain documented procedures (especially to meet regulatory requirements), or maintained regularly. For example, Verigenics (formerly AdvantaPure) puts RFID tags into hoses, pumps, bags, filters, and valves used in pharmaceutical manufacturing. These require documented sterilization on a regular basis. RFID makes it easy to track cleaning cycles, batches processed, and other user-defined cycles. This provides automated documentation, a confirmed audit for validation, and reduces errors on the production floor, such as putting the wrong hose on or forgetting part of the process.
In the A350 XWB aircraft, Airbus is using parts from Honeywell Aerospace that are tagged with 8-kilobyte memory TegoChip XL RFID chip. The lifecycle of the part is recorded on the tag, everything from its creation (date, serial number, lot/batch, etc.), to its use by the airlines, and maintenance and repair done to it.
Marathon Oil has been experimenting with RFID in downhole well operations. They place RFID tags into the fluids being pumped and use it to control the equipment (such as to open and close valves) as it flows past various readers. This provides precision and flexibility in controlling the equipment and processes.
Alkar makes continuous-cooking (conveyor-belt style) industrial ovens. Data from an RFID-temperature probe embedded into the product moving down the conveyor is used to automatically adjust the temperature in the various heating and cooling zones throughout the oven. RFID is also being used to monitor the temperature of produce from farm to grocer, as described in “Winning the Freshness Wars.”
Locating and Tracking Assets
CribMaster has embedded RFID into their tools, down to each individual socket in a wrench-set. This enables tools to be accurately and quickly located within very large facilities, saving valuable search time for highly paid skilled workers, keeping operations and production lines going, and creating accountability for tools. Using systems such as those from OATSystems and Core RFID as well, tool tracking is being used in many settings, such as in aircraft production, not just for reducing tool search times, but for reducing FOD (Foreign Object Damage), maintaining DCMA and DCAA audit compliance, and meeting calibration requirements.
Innovapaedics makes surgical implants and surgical tools with RFID attached to them to help hospitals keep track of these expensive items before, during, and after an operation. It ensures the right tools are in the right trays for the procedure, records in the patients’ medical records exactly which specific implants were put into the patient, automatically adds those items to the bill, and automatically orders more tools or implants as needed. Innovapaedics’ long term vision, which they are already proceeding with, is to embed RFID tags and sensors permanently within ‘smart implants’ that detect temperature, pressure, and other events to keep track of the condition of the device and the progress of the patient.
RFID Beyond Products
These are just a tiny portion of the ways RFID is being used in various products. Hopefully this will spur product managers and designers to think of creative ways that RFID might be used to improve their product offering. Beyond its use in products, RFID can be used in many other functional areas, such as:
- Logistics and Supply Chain (for one angle, see “RFID and EDI – Untapped Opportunity”)
- Manufacturing Operations
- Compliance, Safety, Security
- Retail, Sales, Marketing, Merchandising
- Public Infrastructure and Utilities (e.g. Transit Systems, Toll Roads, Power and Water, etc.)
- Document Management
- Process Improvement
- Emergency Response
In future installments of this series, we will further explore this universe of RFID applications, to get an appreciation for how it can help across so many different domains.
To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.