Desktop USB RFID Readers – Simple yet Versatile

Posted by Ken Lynch on Wed, Apr 24, 2013 @ 01:33 PM

Tags: RFID, Healthcare, Embedded RFID, Event Management, Airplane Parts Tracking, USB RFID reader, RFID Kiosk

ThingMagic USB ReaderThe value of small form factor RFID readers is not difficult to understand – it is a combination of simplicity, utility and low cost that makes them a popular choice among application developers. Any industry can benefit from being more efficient, yet many are apprehensive to put resources or systems (RFID being an example) in place to make it happen, because of any number of barriers to entry – “it’ll cost too much,” “it’ll be too invasive,” “it’ll be difficult to integrate with our current operations.

ThingMagic’s USB RFID Reader is one answer to these concerns, particularly for users developing and deploying interactive read/write applications. Its small form factor allows users to deploy without affecting existing infrastructure. The reader’s ability to be controlled and powered by a PC means plugging into a USB port is typically all that’s necessary to integrate with existing hardware systems. And, its low cost makes it an easier investment decision. The variety of industries that the ThingMagic USB RFID Reader has made its way into shows this versatility.


Writing information to an RFID tag is easy enough when it involves something as simple as scanning workers’ ID badges into a system, but this becomes significantly more difficult when the tag you need to scan is attached to an enormous airplane part you can’t necessarily just drag over to any old reader. Companies like Honeywell Aerospace have begun applying high-memory RFID tags to various parts they manufacture so that they can be tracked from birth through their eventual use by airlines, and repair if necessary. To write and read information on these tags, which often reside on difficult to reach parts, Honeywell uses simple and portable USB RFID readers provided by ThingMagic that can be easily plugged into a laptop. Using a USB RFID reader to write and read these high-memory tags allows aerospace companies to easily attach information part descriptions, manufacture dates, part numbers, and serial numbers to the equipment being moved around a plant and even to other countries.


Healthcare environments – hospitals, clinics, etc. – depend on accuracy perhaps more than any other industry, as errors could potentially affect not only just business, but individuals’ health and well-being. A recent deployment by XECAN (watch video), a leading provider of smart RFID systems for healthcare, fixes ThingMagic USB readers to the desktop PCs in hospital exam rooms. Doctors can then scan their badge upon greeting a patient and have immediate access to that patient’s profile in the Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system.

The time saved by not having to repeatedly enter login credentials for different software applications allows doctors more time to see patients and focus on care, letting the technology handle logistics. The entire process becomes more efficient and accurate, reducing potential errors and, in turn, lowering costs for patients, healthcare providers and insurers. And it involves little more effort from employees than simply touching their IDs to a desktop USB RFID reader.  Download XECAN Case Study


These types of readers are just as often applied in fast-paced, often outdoor environments as part of athletic deployments, and can be used to easily replace the guesswork involved in athletic competition with structure and automation for accuracy.

When you consider the logistics of racing sports, for instance, it’s obviously important to have accurate time recording measures in place for properly determining winners and statistics. What’s often neglected, however, (and which we’ve blogged in the past) is the need to monitor for fair play – a lesson Rosie Ruiz taught us all the hard way in 1980 when she became the “fastest” female runner in the history of the Boston Marathon (until investigators discovered she’d skipped most of the race).

To protect the integrity of racing sports, companies like RFID Timing deploy RFID systems to keep track of athlete information and monitor their progress at different checkpoints throughout a race. In these types of deployments, a USB reader could be used to encode and check UHF tags before they’re placed on a racer’s number prior to an event. The readers are also used to scan athletes’ tags in various locations, for instance at the point where a runner would pick up his or her race pack. Automating a process like this ensures an athlete’s details are correct in a timing system’s database.

RFID-Powered Kiosks

Though you’ll typically see these types of readers on a desk plugged into a PC or laptop, use cases have evolved in parallel with the explosion of social media to popularize RFID-powered social media kiosks at event functions. Showing the more casual and entertaining side of RFID, providers like ODIN (watch video) put together interactive kiosks that allow people to more easily engage with others and share enjoyable moments from the events they attend. Users who touch their conference ID badge to an RFID-powered kiosk and choose to attach it to their social media accounts can then easily share updates, check-ins, and photos from the variety of sessions, booths, or events they visit.

A cool use case we’ve blogged in the past was for the Olympics this past summer when candy company Cadbury partnered with the social media tech company dwinQ to set up a large, purple, inflatable booth – the Cadbury House – that was RFID-enabled. Prior to entering the Cadbury House, visitors could tap their event badges to a ThingMagic USB RFID reader and then choose to link the badge to their Facebook account. From that point on, other readers throughout the attraction would automatically pick up visitors’ badges and give them different options for sharing content, such as a photo opportunity with an added backdrop of participants receiving Olympic medals in front of a large crowd. They reported that an impressive 75% of attendees opted to link their Facebook pages, checking in 5824 times and sharing 8958 photos.  Download ODIN Case Study

The value of this type of reader, regardless of whether it’s found on a racetrack or in a hospital exam room, is that it can be easily deployed to provide immediate results. These types of readers are designed to plug simply into existing infrastructure so as to offer a quick solution that doesn’t disrupt ongoing operations already in place. The variety of applications – creative and entertaining like Cadbury to complex like aerospace parts tracking – shows its versatility. Because there are so few strings attached, virtually any industry could see improvements in performance, efficiency, or accuracy with desktop USB RFID readers.

Top Three Tips for Avoiding Lost Luggage: RFID, RFID, RFID

Posted by Ken Lynch on Fri, Dec 09, 2011 @ 04:10 PM

Tags: RFID, Airplane Parts Tracking, Airlines, Baggage Tagging, ReadWriteWeb

RFID Baggage TrackingA while back, we blogged about airlines using RFID to track parts for inventory control. Now, it looks like more progress is being made in the airline industry around luggage tracking.

ThingMagic partner, Tagsys has developed an RFID-enabled luggage tag, the Permanent Bag Tag being used by Quantus Airways. The “Q Bag Tag,” containing an EPC Gen 2 passive RFID inlay is affixed to each bag. It’s also environment friendly. Each tag can be reused for an unlimited number of times. Here is how it works:

The RFID chip in the tag stores the details of several flights and can be reprogrammed at read points to use all over again on new flights.

After receiving a boarding pass, a passenger puts his RFID-tagged suitcase on the conveyor belt. A reader built into the conveyor reads the tag's unique ID number.

The traveler follows prompts on a touch screen connected to the RFID-enabled conveyor, indicating the type of baggage that he is checking in and how much it weighs.

The system activates the reusable Q Bag Tag and the conveyor belt takes the luggage into the handling system where it is sorted and screened via the RFID system.

Airline baggage handlers are able to see each bag's destination on a video monitor as the luggage passes an RFID reader.

The last two steps are probably the weakest link in a manual process that would inadvertently send your bags to Miami when you are going to Boston. 

The Permanent Bag Tag can also work without an RFID reader. They can be used to display passenger and flight data on a built-in, electronic paper-based screen. Airports that do not have an RFID infrastructure in place, can still use the tags that will display the passenger's name and flight number on the screen for the baggage handlers to see. This isn’t as error free as the full RFID system can be because it still requires an element of manual processing, but it can certainly help make it more efficient.

ReadWriteWeb wrote about RFID-enabled luggage as an example of the Internet of Things back in 2009. Their story focused on the more personal, human element. More specifically, customer satisfaction and brand loyalty. Wouldn’t you choose an airline if the odds of your bags arriving in the same city at the same time, were significantly higher?

So, again we learn how RFID can be used to easily re-invent a manual process, making it more efficient and helping to control variable costs. We also see (again) that RFID goes beyond business benefits to the airline, and yields added perks for the consumers that turn their travel into a positive experience. If RFID can be the reason your vacation travel goes off without a hitch, it deserves a special place in our everyday lives.

If you happen to be flying this holiday season, safe travels to you. And if you are flying with an airline that doesn’t use RFID this holiday season, here are some tips for keeping your bags with you, or at least making them easier to retrieve.  Good luck!

Planes, Trains, Automobiles & RFID

Posted by Ken Lynch on Wed, Sep 01, 2010 @ 10:26 AM

Tags: RFID, Asset Tracking, Airplane Parts Tracking, Telematics

Transportation manufacturing industry relies more and more on RFID

Planes, Trains, AutomobileBased upon the uses of radio frequency identification and sensing (RFIDS) we’ve explored during our 100 Uses of RFID program so far, such as asset tracking and automobile telematics, you have to wonder if RFID would have helped Neal Page get home to Chicago any faster in Planes, Trains & Automobiles.  (OK, you may not think of this, but we do since we love this space so much.)

If the car rental company that lost Neal’s reserved car in St. Louis had used RFID to track its fleet, would the car have been there, sparing him the expletive-laden tirade and allowing him to get home?  Would the car that Del Griffith successfully rented have had sensors that would have detected Del’s lit cigarette, keeping it from becoming a charred convertible?  Would the train that broke down in St. Louis been in better condition if RFID helped ensure a higher quality manufacturing process to begin with?

Of course, this classic movie wouldn’t have been as funny or successful if these scenarios played out, but we ask because these are all ways that RFID is being used by the transportation manufacturing industry.  Today, we continue the 100 Days of RFID by kicking-off a three-part series on this market.


Airplane manufacturers use RFID heavily in managing its supply chain.  Given the long, complex manufacturing time for a commercial jet, with millions of parts, Boeing and Airbus have used RFID for parts tracking and inventory control for over six years.  That use is now evolving from supply chains and assembly plans to the tracking of parts onboard the aircraft in use by airline fleets.

Boeing is using RFID tags on its new 787 Dreamliner, which will see first shipments in use by the end of this year.  The Dreamliner has tags affixed on its “maintenance-significant parts,” while the Airbus A350 will uses RFID on 1,500 of its parts for what the industry refers to as “airborne RFID.”

The use of RFID tags on these parts gives airlines the ability to track and monitor avionics and other parts after they've been installed on the aircraft. Information gleaned from the tags will support aircraft configuration management and line maintenance, repair shop optimization and life-limited parts monitoring. Consequently, the fast maintenance turnaround facilitated by RFID can translate into improved on-time performance.


In the train market, a new and very interesting application of RFID is emerging.  Bombadier, which many people know as the manufacturer of Leer jets, also is the number one manufacturer of passenger rail equipment.  Bombardier also runs a $1 billion services business that operates and maintains 8,000 rail vehicles under contract around the world, including the MBTA commuter rail service here in Boston.  To help it grow its existing business in this area, the company is developing a new set of products and services leveraging RFID.

For example, the track on which trains run, must be maintained and visually inspected for defects every 2-3 days.  For the most part, this inspection is done manually by transit workers walking along the track looking for problems, putting them in harm’s way.  As a result, it saw an opportunity for a new RFID-based system called TrackSafe. With the system, track workers wear vests containing RFID tags that automatically link to readers installed approximately every 500 feet along the track.  The readers are connected to a warning light and speaker cluster designed to activate whenever a train approached a construction or maintenance area. Train conductors, alerted to the workers' presence, would instantly know that it was time to slow down and proceed with caution, while workers would be alerted to oncoming trains.

A challenge it had when offering the system, which is not uncommon to RFID applications in general, is the objection among track workers that they would be monitored for the wrong reasons.  To overcome this challenge, Bombardier applied the concept of “sketching the user experience” created by Microsoft product visionary Bill Buxton.  This involves understanding human-computer interaction in order to design technology-driven products that are accepted and effectively used.


RFID in the automobile industry has seen several applications going back to the early days of key fobs, to more recently the integration in the factory, for tracking parts containers across far-flung supply chains and for yard management in vehicle processing centers.

But getting back to our Planes, Trains & Automobiles movie reference, based upon very recent increases in the use of RFID by car rental companies, the days of Neal Page’s lost car may be coming to an end.   Thanks to two advances in RFID technologies, rental companies now can tag entire fleets and use RFID to better manage them from an inventory and security perspective. 

  1. Smart labels – Low-cost RFID tags embedded in windshield stickers can be quickly and cost effectively affixed to rental cars.
  2. UHF readers – The improved read range and performance of today’s UHF readers allow rental cars to be read as they are being driven off the lots, relaying the information instantly to software systems tracking the availability of vehicles.

All of this helps the rental operation streamline its inventory management, improve employee accountability and reduce labor and equipment – not to mention spare its rental agents from expletive-laden tirades from customers!

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