Every day we’re connected through technology. This communication between people, devices, networks, and everything in between has become so prevalent that it seems ordinary for most. Clearly what we now take for granted has been years in the making, with innumerable individuals and companies working to make it happen. But I think it’s worth highlighting the recent successes of companies like Zebra Technologies, whose leadership has helped to make this connected world possible, and has helped put technologies like RFID at the center of this movement.
Zebra - a partner of ThingMagic for many years - provides enabling technologies for organizations with high-volume, mission-critical or specialty labeling needs. Several Zebra products use ThingMagic embedded modules to encode RFID tags used for item-level tracking applications such as healthcare specimen tagging, supply chain work-in-process management, and retail item tracking, among many others. Zebra’s recent recognition by Frost & Sullivan as the 2012 Company of the Year in North America for their high-value products, robust portfolio, deep market penetration, and optimized channel strategy is a testament to the impact they have had on the entire industry. Their reach is impressive – having shipped over 11 million printers of all kinds to nearly 100 different countries – and is a driving force behind making RFID-enabled solutions a viable option across markets.
In addition to their execution on the technology end of business, Zebra has done a good job articulating to the public the importance of an interconnected world, more specifically promoting an understanding of the value of the “Internet of Things.” To further an understanding of this concept, Zebra recently partnered with Forrester to produce a study that helps IT decision-makers better understand the importance and growing presence of Internet of Things solutions. The RFID-based technologies behind the Internet of Things are used to solve business problems like supply chain inefficiencies as well as inspire innovation in organizations. And as the survey revealed that 82% of organizations either have Internet of Things solutions in place already or plan to put solutions in place in the next 5 years, it’s become clear that the Internet of Things will become a household concept in the very near future.
Congratulations Zebra! We as an industry should follow your example of explaining and promoting the value everyone has and will experience in this increasingly connected world.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the R&D effort to develop passive RFID tags that can be offered for five cents or less. Have we succeeded? Almost. In high volumes assembled UHF tag inlays cost somewhere between seven and ten cents. Along the way, however, the RFID industry have invented something far more important: five-cent wireless networking!
What is it and how does it work?
Both NXP and Impinj have released RFID chips that offer an Inter-Integrated Circuit (I2C) interface in addition to the Gen2 RFID interface. The new chips also include significantly more memory compared to previous generations of simple-passive RFID IC’s: NXP’s UCODE I2C offers 3.3kBit of EEPROM memory; Impinj’s Monza-X offers 2.1 to 8.2kBit of EEPROM memory.
Electronics manufacturers have been using I2C-enabled EEPROM memory chips for decades to store small amounts of data persistently, including configuration data or boot-loading information. As the main microprocessor of a device is powered up, it reads configuration information from the memory chip via the I2C interface.
The new generation of I2C-RFID chips will maintain this functionality, but offer more. The memory content can be accessed through the I2C interface and through wireless RFID interface using a standard UHF Gen2 RFID reader. Since the RFID chips can be used in passive mode, the EEPROM memory can be read and written to without powering the host device.
Why is it so cheap?
Fully assembled conventional RFID tags require the actual chip, an antenna substrate, and the conversion into a usable package. A relatively small percentage of the cost can be attributed to the chip itself. The biggest cost items are the handling, assembly and antenna substrates.
When I2C-RFID chips are placed on printed circuit boards, the antenna is etched into the board at virtually no additional cost. The assembly is part of the surface mount board assembly, i.e. it’s also virtually free. Hence the only real cost item is the IC itself. The I2C enabled RFID chips are more expensive than the regular passive RFID IC’s, however, most of that cost can be attributed to the large memory of the chips. Since I2C-RFID chips replace conventional EEPROM chips, the marginal cost of adding RFID and hence wireless networking amounts to a few cents.
What is it going to be used for?
Device manufacturers will include the I2C-RFID chips to store essential configuration, licensing, or product information persistently. Since the memory can be written to over the air, configuration or licensing information can be applied to the device using an RFID reader without turning on the device.
In manufacturing, the RFID chip can be used to identify and serialize the device (WIP tracking). Once manufactured, channel partners are able to configure devices in the warehouse or at the point of sale without taking them out of the box.
Post sales, the device’s host processor can log information on usage hours, failure modes, misuse, use of consumables etc. on the I2C-RFID chip. As the device is sent in for maintenance or repair, the information is available to the service center through the RFID interface. Once again, the device does not have to be tuned on to read out the information.
Intel announced recently that it has included an I2C-RFID chip with the reference design for its new Windows 8 tablet computer, making Intel and its OEM partners the biggest users of this new capability yet.
Why is this so important?
More and more of the objects we buy and use on a daily basis include electronic circuit boards to support and enhance basic functionality: Nowadays toys like to speak to their child owners, kitchen appliances can be programmed to turn on at arbitrary times, toothbrushes beep when its time to switch sides, and power saws shut off electronically when safety is compromised. Today, few of these devices are networked and few are RFID-enabled. The inclusion of the new I2C-RFID ships will enable both RF networking and RF identification. Almost overnight networking and identification of inexpensive everyday objects has become feasible and realistic.
We have long been waiting for the Internet of Things to become a reality. I think I2C-RFID chips will finally make it happen.
(Photo: Tom Hurst / RFID Journal)
Let’s face it, we have developed quite a few RFID modules over the past decade. We have developed small modules, high-power modules, modules with low-power consumption, modules for handhelds, modules for printers, FCC-certified modules, ETSI-compliant modules, and modules designed for the Chinese market. Why on earth would we develop yet another module which – at first glance - doesn’t offer additional capabilities over previous generations?
The short answer is, that never before were we able to package all these features in a small, inexpensive, and powerful design. The M6e-Micro offers previously available capabilities in ONE
module. It therefore enables all the applications we have supported in the past, and more.
If you prefer the long answer, I believe this is the best UHF RFID module ever for three key reasons:1. Size
Size is extremely important, especially for small end-devices such as handheld terminals. If the RFID module doesn’t fit physically into a host device, it will not be considered for a project, no matter how powerful it is. At 26x26x4mm, the M6e-Micro is smaller than any module we have designed in the past and smaller than any other module in its class on the market.
The engineering accomplishment here is not so much that we were able to squeeze a bunch of components onto a small board surface, but that we were able to keep the board at a reasonable temperature. Since power amplifiers generate quite a bit of heat, up until now the difficulty has been to design high-power modules in small packages without major heat-sinking surfaces. The M6e-Micro overcomes this limitation. It can transmit at full power despite its small size.2. Power output and power consumption
The Micro offers a maximum of 30dBm of output power which represents the maximum power output allowed in North America and in most other worldwide regulatory environments. In passive RFID systems, even a single dB of additional reader output power can make a huge difference in performance. The Micro offers between three and seven dB more output power compared to competing devices in its class.
As important as output power is, many mobile devices use low-power modules in order to save battery life. The Micro enables the user to turns on high-power in burst mode when needed, and then switch back into a low-power mode to save battery power. This is the exact capability needed by handheld RFID terminal vendors who want to push the read range of a device without sacrificing battery life. 3. Regional compliance
By now we know that electromagnetic emission requirements for North America, Europe, and China cannot be met in one and the same reader device, unless separate filter banks are implemented to support the three key regions. That’s exactly what we did on the M6e-Micro, despite the fact that the device is smaller than anything we have designed before. The Micro is the first full-power RFID module to support every RFID region in the world with the possible exception of Japan (Japanese RFID regulations are still debated).
In summary, the Micro is a real engineering beauty and packs many of the features of earlier generations of modules in one device. Within weeks, I expect a dozen of Micro-like datasheets to be published by our far-east competitors. The only difference to the ‘Micro’ will be, that those devices either will not get developed at all, or they turn out to be out of spec in a few but important aspects. Usually the copycats forget to design in compliance, which only becomes evident to the customer late in the design-in process.
So here is my advice for you, dear customer: check on the compliance and certification performance of competitive modules, or – if you prefer to save yourself the time and agony - choose the M6e-Micro right away!
For more information, check out these resrouces:
>> Micro datasheet
>> Whitepaper: Getting a Read on Embedded UHF RFID: Why RFID Modules are the Smart Choice for Developing Next-Generation Solutions
Fifteen years ago my ThingMagic co-founders and I worked as research assistants in the MIT Media Lab’s Things-That-Think consortium. Our main agenda was to embed intelligence in everyday objects such as clothing, toys, and furniture. We quickly realized how important passive RFID would be for implementing the vision of smart and networked objects and ultimately the Internet-of-Things. Today, passive UHF RFID outperforms any other technology in applications where a large number of tags are attached to inexpensive objects and where readers are embedded in the environment to quietly understand the objects around them without human intervention.
In the years since, we haven’t always been true to this insight into the sweet spot of RFID applications. In fact, my co-founder Ravi Pappu and I like to pride ourselves in having proposed the use of RFID for just about any imaginable scenario. In our enthusiasm for the technology and our eagerness to help customers, we have put tags on people, retail shelves and vehicles of all types including fighter jets, locomotives and racecars. None of these applications deal with millions of inexpensive objects; most of these applications require expensive, portal-type reader set-ups; and none of these applications helped the RFID industry develop its full economic promise.
On the other hand, when we deployed embedded RFID reader modules, usually with the help of OEM customers, our efforts resulted in scalable projects generating long-term repeat-business. This success can only partially attributed to our market leading position in UHF modules. Embedded RFID readers quite simply outnumber their fixed reader cousins by an order of magnitude, much like WiFi-enabled devices outnumber WiFi access points.
The most successful embedded RFID applications continue to be RFID-enabled printers and RFID-enabled handheld terminals. RFID-enabled label printers, for example those made by Zebra Technologies, are a necessary ingredient of any high-volume RFID application. Labels have to be encoded, no matter what you use them for.
RFID-enabled handheld terminals have become the workhorses for the majority of workflow applications. In logistics, retail, or construction alike, workers need to truly interact with the objects they are handling. They require a user interface to fill out forms, collect the electronic signature of a customer, or record the geo-location of a particular object. RFID-enabled handheld terminals offer these capabilities: at the low-end, terminals include Bluetooth and a single-button user interface; at the high-end, terminals include every imaginable wireless capability in addition to RFID, along with a full keyboard and a big screen. For example, see Trimble Announces New RFID Accessory for Nomad Handheld. All of these devices include one common element: a ThingMagic embedded RFID reader module.
More recently, other exciting embedded applications have emerged: Keurig is embedding RFID readers in their single-cup coffee machines. The machine recognizes the RFID-enabled coffee container and optimizes its settings to produce the best coffee possible.
Intel is enabling its OEM customers to embed RFID tags with every Windows 8 tablet computer at the time of manufacturing. This will enable embedded readers track the devices during the manufacturing process and into distribution. Retailers will be able to offer customized licensed features and configure the tablets using embedded RFID readers at the point of sale. Service centers will be reading out information about a device without even taking it out of the box or powering it on. How will they read out the information? They will be using RFID-enabled handheld terminals or other embedded readers.
In conclusion, once in a while we should remind ourselves why we got excited about passive RFID in the first place: we saw the opportunity to make inexpensive, small, but pervasive objects part of the networked world. Embedded RFID readers continue to be key to realizing that vision.
Robots have certainly undergone their share of transformation over the years – from the stereotypical robot in “Lost in Space” to the child-friendly WALL-E – and I think Kevin Ashton, in a recent RFID Journal article, made a good point in arguing that robots have managed to shed creepy images, but have yet to make the complete transition to being human-like.
One ongoing limitation is that robots have not been able to have a true dialogue with humans - like that between Luke Skywalker and C-3PO, who boasted to be fluent in "over six million forms of communication"! Can RFID bridge this communication gap?
A few years ago, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Duke University embarked on a project where they used ThingMagic readers with robots in a healthcare setting. With long-range read capability, the robot named EL-E can move freely while still being able to detect RFID tags in various locations, and a finger-mounted, short-range antenna enables her to interact with a tagged object, such as handing a stethoscope to a physician. EL-E can also assist physically-impaired people, giving them the appropriate medicine bottle when they are unable to help themselves. We’ve blogged before about how improving the patient experience can also accelerate the patients’ recovery. A robotic right-hand-man could allow nurses and physicians to spend more time researching, talking to and engaging with their patients, and therefore being able to treat the individual.
Check out another robot from Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab - GATSBII - a PR2 robot from Willow Garage outfitted with patch antennas and a ThingMagic M5e reader, as seen on CNN’s The Big I show!
More recently, and right here in Boston, we are seeing more investment in robot technology with companies like Rethink Robotics looking for new ways to make our industries more efficient and cost-effective. Their flagship product, Baxter, is designed to fit seamlessly into a manufacturing environment to take certain types of work off the hands of employees. Because of the enhanced level of interaction between human and robot, the robot can perform risk-posing tasks such as climbing a tower to do repairs, or repetitive, assembly line work that could free up people to do more complex, value-added tasks. In doing so, people can become more productive and the business is more efficient. And we all know that greater efficiency is the key to success in today’s economy.
The video below demonstrates how Baxter interacts with humans.
With RFID tags becoming more ubiquitous , can this be the technology that breaks down that communication barrier between robots and people?
It may be a while before we can think of a robot like C-3PO as our wing-man, but with RFID we may be able to more naturally interact with the next generation of robots – not in Hollywood - but in the business arena.
A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to be able to speak with InformationWeek’s Jeff Bertolucci, a respected voice in the Big Data space. In a conversation stemming from our Future of RFID infographic, we discussed the role RFID is playing in the revolution brought on by devices communicating with one another and individuals and enterprises relying more on technology.
In general, we are all connecting more with the world around us every day and RFID can be thought of as an enabling technology that pulls it all together. Clearly it contributes to the amount of data generated by business and consumer activities, but it can also be used to manage it – and in the words of a recent report by InformationWeek, “the big data challenge is real.”
New and innovative uses of RFID are emerging on a daily basis - reshaping the way we (vendors, partners, end users) should be thinking about the technology. It can no longer be viewed as a niche technology or a replacement for barcodes. In a previous blog post, we introduced the intersection of RFID and Big Data to get people thinking about the technology in a bigger way. Business managers are seeing cost savings, consumers are enjoying new efficiencies, and generally speaking, people are able to more easily connect their online world with their physical world.
So what do you think – is RFID becoming more of a household name in Big Data conversations? Or do we have a few more years of flying under the radar?
In our view, RFID plays an important role in managing Big Data and facilitating the Internet of Things, even though it’s never been the flashy new technology that has commanded headlines - well, until now at least.
Inevitable, open, and inclusive are just a few words Rob van Kranenburg used in a recent article The Sensing Planet: Why The Internet Of Things Is The Biggest Next Big Thing to communicate the growth and adoption of what he loosely defines as the global process to enhance all objects with some form of digital identity. Van Kranenburg, a teacher and consultant on the topic, believes that U.S. industry and government bodies aren’t taking as active a role in its adoption as we are – the people – who are coming to own and drive the movement.
But don’t consider this a mark against it. This isn’t a bad sign for the Internet of Things. In fact, since its inception, the Internet we’ve seen evolve over the past twenty years has itself functioned a lot like the Wild West, with people driving its progress more quickly than any governing body or private business has. It’s clear that a number of factors will drive our world closer to this connected world, but we believe it’s RFID that will be the unsung hero supporting the people to drive this shift.
Van Kranenburg referred to RFID and the rest of the “ecology” surrounding the Internet of Things as “nothing fancy; mostly radio, quite mundane,” but that’s what we love about RFID. Its wallflower-like characteristics enable it to blend into our lives, and that’s the very reason it will drive this movement. If any technology requires extra steps, behavioral changes, or new inconveniences, it can’t take off.
We live in a connected world, but in reality it is hundreds and thousands of systems that all operate separately. RFID is the glue that passively, yet intelligently, connects our doctors to their patients, our cars to their parking spots, and our businesses to their products. It will be the connection between the intranets we already have established that forms the Internet of Things we all imagine coming to life.
Van Kranenburg will be communicating how he perceives the Internet of Things at the PICNIC conference this week in Amsterdam. In fact, the theme of this year’s PICNIC is “The Shift from Top Down to Bottom Up,” articulating that it’s the people driving innovation, not the legislators and business leaders up top.
For an idea of what’s possible with RFID growth, Tik Tik, one of the businesses attending PICNIC, is using the example of children checking themselves in and out of daycare with RFID keychains and rating activities they’ve chosen there for their parents to see via a secure Web site. The conference will most likely usher in a new era of understanding just how universally applicable RFID technology has become. I’m willing to bet that in years to follow, RFID will have a much bigger presence at this show because people will have recognized its role in driving the Internet of Things. If you’re not yet convinced, we have an Infographic that could change your mind.
If you’ve ever circled city blocks over and over looking for a parking spot (which should be just about anybody who’s ever tried to find parking in a city), you’ve probably wished a voice would just tell you exactly where to go. And if navigating congested city streets has ever frustrated you, it won’t be surprising to hear that more than 30 percent of traffic congestion in cities is caused by drivers looking for parking.
According to a study performed by UCLA Professor Donald Shoup, who surveyed 15 city blocks for one year in downtown Los Angeles, the search for a parking spot created about 950,000 extra miles of travel – equivalent to about 38 trips around Earth! Not only is this excess travel clogging city streets, it is wasting gasoline - 47,000 gallons in those same 15 blocks, or about two and a half swimming pools. This is money, time, and resources that drivers and city officials have been letting go to waste for years.
People take crowded city streets as a given, but in reality there are massive inefficiencies that are entirely surmountable, particularly with RFID technology in place. In cities ranging from Stockholm to San Francisco, the parking technology firm Streetline is partnering with IBM to install RFID-based parking-management systems as part of IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative (a subset of Smarter Planet, focused on congestion solutions, greener buildings, water management systems, and the like).
Logistically, this involves embedding transponders in the pavement of a city’s parking spots, attaching readers to permanent structures like lamp posts, and setting this system up to transmit information to a software platform from IBM that can manage the data that comes from Streetline’s readers. Magnetic sensors installed in the pavement can detect whether or not a vehicle is in a given parking space, meaning cities can now view the flow of parking availability in real time. Doing so has allowed city officials and drivers alike to realize that at any given time there can be as many as 2,000 parking spots available, when many had believed there were none. Amazing.
For drivers, finding a parking spot no longer has to involve circling and clogging the already-congested city streets, a process that on average will take 20 minutes in a business district, according to IBM’s Global Parking Survey. That could be the difference between being late for a business meeting or making it on time. Instead, it can be as simple as loading the free “Parker” app, looking at open spots nearby on the map, and navigating to the most convenient one.
City management stands to gain the most from the technology, as they have access to Streetline data, trends, and reports, enabling their parking managers and enforcement officers to work more efficiently. Managers of parking garages can locate spots that have been occupied for too long or are vacant, and can use that information to better serve their customers. And a better understanding of the flow of traffic and parking availability also allows for more efficient planning of transit schedules and infrastructure projects around the trends city officials see.
Based on the costs of inefficient parking management revealed by the UCLA survey referenced above, Streetline can save people time, money, and gas, while simultaneously bringing in more revenue for a city from the efficiencies created, particularly from a more organized system of issuing parking tickets and better accommodations for tourism. This can make a difference for municipalities facing big budget deficits that need new and better sources of revenue. If city governments can significantly reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, and drivers can save time and gas money simply by gaining better visibility into open parking spaces, it’s a worthwhile investment that has the potential to pay for itself in a very short period of time.
Locationing and Auto-Identification technologies are being used in a number of waste management activities - from using GPS for fleet management, to RFID-enabled recycling incentive programs, to contributing to several breakthroughs in smart packaging.
And, the innovation continues. Just last week, Trimble Environmental Solutions announced cBin™, a new solution for managing remote recycling containers. According to the announcement, cBin allows hauling operations to save time and money by reducing fuel consumption, labor, and truck wear and tear incurred when they pick-up empty or partially full containers.
The cBin solution consists of a remote sensor that sends fill level and asset status information via wireless communications to a Web portal that can be accessed to manage container inventory and pickups. cBin sensors automatically measure container fill levels hourly and send updates to the cBin portal.
The scBin Portal ummary screen provides an "at a glance" view of all containers in a community for rapid evaluation of container status. Immediate updates are sent if fill levels exceed action levels.
While GPS technology has certainly been a difference-maker for fleet management, and now container monitoring, Challande – a Swiss waste management and material transportation company – chose to integrate RFID with GPS, setting them up for a greater return on their investment than if they just had GPS alone.
For 10 years, when Challande had a GPS system in place, they could see where their trucks were located and could then manually track down the various containers and waste bins they owned – a system that got the job done, but not one that was entirely efficient. Challande has hundreds of pieces of equipment they need to monitor. By attaching RFID tags to trailers, trucks, and cargo this year, they have been able to gain a more comprehensive view of the many moving parts of their company. The difference from using GPS alone? Now the exact location and ID number of every bin and truck Challande owns is automatically aggregated and sent to their existing management software.
For Challande, the return on their investment is coming from all directions. Their risk of misplacing bins and other property is now practically non-existent. The time their employees used to spend tracking down bins is no longer an expense they have to account for. They don’t have to spend time or money implementing new management software, because they can integrate the new RFID tags with their existing system. Challande can even minimize delays in transportation and delivery by looking at an item’s distance from its destination and making adjustments on the fly.
Challande, and many others, are already watching their RFID systems pay for themselves. And, as highlighted in our Infographic – The Future of RFID, the convergence of RFID with technologies like GPS is helping companies better manage their assets and the myriad of moving pieces they are responsible for.
Over the next decade, the convergence of wireless technologies will be augmented by RFID systems and the integration of passive RFID as part of this platform will be driven by the potential to measure, report and monetize a growing number of transactions in the physical world. In certain applications, it is hard to imagine a future where everyday physical objects won’t have "built-in" RFID.
The emergence of RFID on the concert scene should really come as no surprise. As music festivals of all kinds are gaining popularity, organizers want their audiences to have one less thing to think about when it comes to getting in the door. RFID enabled wristbands do just that. In addition, they offer all kinds of added benefits - such as combatting ticket counterfeiting, supporting cashless payment, and even integrating with the fans' preferred social networks.
RFID was initially used as a ticketing solution for large outdoor music festivals, starting in 2004 with its adoption at SXSW in Austin, TX. It emerged in the form of wristbands and cut down significantly on gate crashing and lost tickets. It also introduced a cash-free payment system, which is undeniably popular since it can be risky to carry around large amounts of money. Though mainstream use of RFID spans nearly a decade, it wasn’t until its much publicized implementation at popular music festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo did people really begin to take notice.
According to a recent article published on Hypebot.com, RFID adoption at concerts has been steadily increasing; this year was no exception. The main focus of attention, though, was focused on concert goers ability to “Check-In” via their Facebook account. Companies such as Intellitix are contributing to the success of RFID and social media at the concert scene. At both Bonnaroo and Coachella this year, Intellitix powered Facebook check-ins via their “Live Click Stations” where fans could upload a picture of themselves to Facebook at their favorite band’s concert, surely becoming the envy of their friends!
It doesn't stop there. Fans are also able to go beyond Facebook status updates and include various tie-ins with sponsors and off-site partners. At Roger Waters-The Wall tour this year, more than 70,000 fans had their RFID enabled wristband linked to their Facebook account. This process allowed them to post messages from Amnesty International during the concert aimed at spreading awareness about Amnesty’s 50-year battle for human rights.
The statistics in this market are getting pretty interesting. At Coachella, more than 30,000 people registered to use the Live Click stations to update their status on Facebook. Bonnaroo took it to a whole new level with over 74,000 registrations for check-ins at the “largest Live Click Stations ever made.”
RFID offers proven benefits when it comes to streamlining concert admittance and combating ticket counterfeiting, but with the continued popularity of social media platforms, it is probably safe to say it hasn’t reached its peak!
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