It's in the keycard you wave to enter a secure office building. It's in the key fob you use to speed your gas purchases and the devices that let you zip through toll lanes on the highway.
You might not have heard of radio frequency identification, or RFID, but you probably encounter it every day. And it could be a valuable tool for your business.
RFID is an automatic identification technology ― like a souped-up barcode. A barcode relies on a visual scan to transmit data, but RFID relies on radio waves and doesn't need a line-of-sight to read data. In place of a barcode, you have an RFID tag or "transponder," read by a hand-held reader, door-mounted reader, or some other configuration.
Many large companies and organizations have adapted RFID to business applications, such as supply chain logistics. The U.S. Department of Defense, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, along with some other retailers, now require that their suppliers tag shipments with RFID so that the data can be automatically recorded when goods arrive. But because many of the companies that supply the DoD and the retail chains are small and mid-sized businesses, and because RFID has more business uses, RFID is a technology tool with which businesses of all sizes may need to become familiar.
"RFID has been used mainly by large companies so far, but there is nothing inherent in the technology that makes it a big company technology," says Mark Roberti, founder and editor of RFID Journal, an independent media company devoted to RFID and its many business applications. "RFID helps companies identify, monitor, and manage all the things in their business that they are not managing effectively today, which is just about everything that is mobile and not connected to the Internet. So if you are a small company that has containers, tools, vehicles, inventory, files, and so on, then RFID can help improve the way you do business."
The following guide details the types of small business applications of RFID, types of RFID, and how to work with experts to implement RFID solutions.
How to Use RFID Technology: RFID Applications for Small Business
In addition to the requirements from bigger companies, some small businesses want to use RFID because the technology can help them solve business problems. "RFID makes companies of all sizes more efficient by helping them track their inventory and equipment," says Chuck Thompson, vice president of sales for Rush Tracking Systems, an RFID software and services firm. "These efficiencies most commonly come in the form of less labor and better accuracy. Many of our business cases are built by eliminating manual scanning, error proofing processes, and eliminating the non-value added labor associated with correcting errors such as expediting, searching, cycle counting, and reconciliation.
Before you even consider types of RFID technology, identify the business challenges you are trying to solve and the business processes you could put in place if you had near perfect visibility to your inventory and assets. Common starting points are areas where there is a repetitive need for data entry done manually or with barcodes, Thompson says.
Some of the challenges that RFID can help businesses address include the following, says Thompson:
RFID can help companies manage many elements of their business that is not managed by their IT systems today, such as parts, tools, returnable containers, vehicles, and so on. "It can also help small manufacturers customize product for individual customers," Roberti says. "Customization increases the complexity of the supply chain, but RFID makes the process easier by providing accurate information about each item being tracked. The benefits that can be achieved are increased customer loyalty. That's a big one for many small companies."
Operationally, RFID can reduce costs associated with labor, time, and efficiencies ― such as automatically recording information about goods received into computer systems. But often small companies don't have large inventories to track, so a bigger benefit is reducing capital expenditure, Roberti says. "If you have tools, returnable containers, and other assets, you have to replace a certain amount of these each year," he says. "If you track these more effectively, you need fewer assets, which means you can reduce your annual capital expenditure."
Dig Deeper: Is RFID Right for Your Business?
How to Use RFID Technology: Types of RFID Technology
Before you hire a consultant or attempt to implement RFID on your own, you need some basic knowledge about the technology.
RFID tags are available in three configurations:
RFID tags are also available in various frequencies. These include low frequency (LF), high frequency (HF), ultra-high frequency (UHF), and ultra-wide band (UWB). Typically, higher frequencies offer more bandwidth and data exchange, and a higher communication range, Thompson says. Likely, you'll need UHF, the "supply chain frequency," mandated by Wal-Mart, the DoD, and Sam's Club.
RFID Starter Kits
As complex as RFID may sound, "it isn't sorcery," Thompson says. Nor is it as expensive as it was a few years ago when Wal-Mart mandated RFID from 100 of its larger suppliers. Some suppliers initially balked, with estimates of up to $1 million for new RFID systems, but technology vendors soon responded with easy-to-implement and lower cost "starter kits" and "slap-and-ship" applications, which allowed small businesses to experiment with RFID and try one application at a time.
"Many RFID equipment providers will provide starter kits for as low as $2,500, including a reader and some tags," Thompson says. "For $25,000, many implementers will provide some kind of express ROI assessment or focused implementation, including one or two readers, some tags, installation, and support."
The best type of project for a small business to start with is one that is small, confined to one application (such as asset tracking), and in a "closed loop," which means within the four walls of your property. Businesses can always expand the applications or the types of goods tracked, and the data can be integrated into enterprise computer systems, but it's important to master the technology on a small scale before attempting a larger undertaking, experts say.
Dig Deeper: 10 Business Uses for Wireless RFID
How to Use RFID Technology: Working with RFID Experts
RFID is a tool, much like a hammer or wrench. Some jobs you can do yourself, but other times you'll need to call in a "master craftsman," Thompson says.
"Companies will most likely need help, except for the simplest applications," Roberti says. "One problem they will face is getting experienced systems integrators to work with them. There are very few highly experienced integrators, and they tend to focus on bigger companies that can spend more. Getting a good integrator involved in a smaller project can be a challenge, but if the scope of the project is well defined and the small company understands the benefit it will get, then an integrator will take the work."
Look only for consultants with experience implementing RFID and all forms of automatic identification, including barcode. While RFID is one method of auto ID and data transfer, it will not necessarily be the right one for your business, Thompson says. A reputable consultant will have numerous clients and references, and ideally, one with a product or process similar to yours.
Here are some things to ask the RFID implementer you're considering working with:
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How to Use RFID Technology: Additional Resources
A subscriber-driven organization comprised of industry leaders and organizations focused on creating global standards for RFID.
Analysis and expertise on RFID from ABI Research, a key industry analyst group.
An influential magazine and website covering the RFID industry.
The international trade association representing automatic identification and mobility technology solution providers.
An online forum of RFID implementers and manufacturers.