Making the Decision to Embed RFID

When embedded RFID makes sense and why making the decision sometimes requires big picture thinking.

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Robert Oberle, Ph.D.Robert Oberle, Ph.D.

Embedded radio frequency identification (RFID) technology has been around for years, but is seeing a spike in implementation due, in large part, to the push for more interconnectivity and data-driven decision making in manufacturing.

RFID tags can be molded into a plastic, rubber, or composite element or placed behind covers or under labels, making them inconspicuous to the user—but not to an RFID reader. You can scan them from as far away as 16 feet in most environments and in some cases much farther and identify an individual device, or a room full of devices, without getting near them.

Enabling the tracking of a product throughout its life cycle is one of several good reasons manufacturers consider embedding RFID tags on high-value assets during the manufacturing process. An embedded tag enables automated data collection about the asset, whether it is in production at the manufacturer’s factory, or deployed at the customer’s site. Whether you’re looking to identify a rack of IT equipment, a tray of medical instruments or a pallet of oil pumps, embedded RFID tags can dramatically reduce the cost of gathering data about the location and state of the asset.

Unlike barcodes or other symbol-based identification technologies, embedded RFID tags are largely immune to dirt or grime; they are protected from handling, impacts, chemical degradation, abrasion and other environmental hazards—and retain their readability for the life of the device. Because the tag is passive, it doesn’t rely on a battery as a power source—the identifying information can be read even after decades.

For many companies, there is incredible downstream value—both for the manufacturer and their customers—in embedding RFID at the manufacturing stage. These include life cycle management, traceability, recall and upgrade, auditing and financial management and regulatory compliance. So why isn’t it a standard part of any number of products? It often comes down to one of two reasons: either companies don’t fully understand how much benefit embedded RFID can provide—or the cost hits one department, while the benefits accrue to other departments and customers. We’ll tackle both challenges below.

When Might Embedded RFID Be a Good Choice?

Besides durability and readability, embedded RFID tags also enhance security, asset recovery and access to important maintenance information, functionality, and traceability.

Embedded RFID strengthens security and asset recovery

The tag is incorporated into the structure of the asset, so it is extremely difficult to remove, deface or counterfeit. It is virtually impossible to destroy the tag without destroying some element of the device. This makes Embedded RFID a solid anti-theft or asset recovery measure. For example, solar batteries used in remote locations or developing countries have a high theft rate. By embedding RFID tags in the batteries, the stolen assets can be easily identified as stolen. Removing the tags would destroy the batteries—making them worthless to the thieves

Store more information with easy access

An RFID tag containing a unique device identifier can also be used to store additional critical information about the device. Configuration, design or date code information can be programmed into the RFID tag. This can provide customer and service personnel with useful information without the need to connect to a network.

Quickly and efficiently locate and manage assets

Embedded RFID tags enable you to locate and uniquely identify assets faster and more easily. By embedding RFID into a device at the factory, a manufacturer enables his customer’s effective asset tracking system out of the box.

Solving Big Picture Problems Requires Big Picture Thinking

A few years ago, a vehicle manufacturer was considering embedding RFID tags on some of the parts they painted. The tags would help assembly operators choose the right parts for a given chassis, and enable rapid, automated final inspection of the painted elements of the assembled vehicle. The tags and associated infrastructure would add just under $5 to the manufacturing cost of each vehicle, and would save the company considerable time, effort and expense from a quality and warranty costs standpoint.

The problem? The manufacturing department would be wholly responsible for absorbing the additional cost. To the manufacturing department, the cost of the tags was viewed as part of the bill of materials – so the idea died on the vine.

As a result, the company was on the hook for the costs to replace parts and make repairs under warranty for vehicles initially shipped with the wrong parts. Those downstream costs were substantial; and they likely far outweighed the cost of RFID implementation.

As with so many decisions business leaders face, the answer to whether adding RFID tags makes sense can only be seen if one is willing to take a step back to gain perspective. Adding RFID capability to a high-priced asset can have many benefits for the manufacturer, the supply chain and the customer/user.  All of these benefits should be accounted for when evaluating the cost/benefit of the decision to add an RFID tag to a product.

Robert Oberle, Ph.D. is Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Vizinex.