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Some technologies have the potential to completely change how operations are conducted in business. New ideas are constantly being generated and as they are researched new applications develop spreading the technology. Some examples are huge, such as the internet or the automation of manual work management processes through software. However, integrating this technology into everyday business did not occur overnight and in many cases took years to become part of our industrial fabric.

Great ideas find their path into business just as it does in everyday life. They start with one application and then grow as other uses come to light or are accepted into the mainstream. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is one such technology that has a huge potential in today’s industrial world.

Understanding RFID

RFID technology enables the transmission and receiving of radio waves between a tiny microchip (tag) and a reader. The chips contain asset information that can be used to identify it, track its movement or even its cost. Once an asset is tagged it can then be read by a reader for management review or action.

There are three primary RFID types; passive (no batteries), active (continuous broadcast with a battery) or be activated only when an RFID reader is in close proximity (requires a small battery). The greater the battery power the greater the cost. The price range for tags ranges from a few cents for the passive up to $100 for the more powerful actives. This makes the cost of individual tags a significant factor to consider.

In addition, there are two types of RFID classifications. The first is a fixed RFID which the reader is in a set position. The second is a mobile RFID where the reader may be part of a mobile handheld device. Because of the cost of active tags, many industries current use passive or battery assisted tags to monitor inventory.

Over the last few years technology has improved the amount of information that can be contained on the tags as well as the ability to transmit (read) the information at greater distances. Perhaps the greatest advantage to industry is that unlike bar codes which can only be read one at a time, RFID tags can be read in bulk, for example inside boxes or as a shopping cart goes by a reader in a store. Assets can also be read using mobile devices in more challenging locations such as assets buried underground.

Industries Using RFID Technology

RFID technology is currently in use by the health care industry, by companies to automate Sarbanes-Oxley compliance and for use in inventory tracking. New applications are being developed every day and are expected to be used by manufacturing, construction and the military.

One of the fastest growing areas is inventory control. Bulk and boxed reading is a significant advantage over bar code technology. For example, inventory reconciliations in a cable warehouse or on trucking fleets can be reduced to just a simple walk-through (without paper) making accounting staff and asset managers very happy with the labor and paper flow expense savings.

An example of RFID use in the retail industry has just been announced. Walmart recently announced the use of RFID for retail asset management specifically, to track clothing for better inventory. In addition to better inventory control, RFID tags will also enable stores to reduce theft by sending out a signal for unremoved RFID tags on store items.

Advancing RFID Toward EAM Applications

Future industrial applications for RFID technology will also benefit infrastructure management. One industry in great need of RFID type applications are utilities companies and any other industry that has assets in challenging locations. RFID tags can be used to locate underground assets or assets that are hidden.

The biggest challenges to cost effectively integrating RFID tags on hidden assets are improving the strength of signal detection and increasing the amount of data that a tag can hold. Current chips hold generally hold 2KB of information (smaller than the size of a photo). Some more advanced chips are holding up to 64KB.

We can expect microchip development to continue as they did in computers to hold much more information. New chips are sure to be able hold enough asset detail to transmit critical information to asset managers without having to dig up the pipes or cables for inspection.

As RFID capabilities improve a major breakthrough will occur when the tags are able to incorporate enough data that can be uploaded directly into EAM system for management review and analysis. The impact on asset and maintenance management will be profound for labor, planned maintenance effectiveness and capital analysis.