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Analyzing RFID's Reliability And Stability Limitations

RFID and bar codes are both auto-identification technologies, but bar codes have a much longer track record and therefore boast greater reliability. In addition to stability issues, there are other potential shortcomings in the readiness of RFID that enterprises must understand and weigh.

When discussing RFID issues, many point to the cost of RFID tags as their greatest concern. Though tag costs are certainly an issue, if tags were free and 100% reliable today, this wouldn't materially change the dilemma most companies face in developing their RFID mandate compliance strategy. Tag cost will continue to decline, and tags will become more reliable. Meanwhile, there are greater issues today that make RFID in our supply chain a real conundrum. Following is an overview of many of these issues:

  • Defective and poorly performing RFID tags: Though tag reliability today is considered relatively high by early adopters, RFID tag manufacturers continue to produce faulty tags. Failure rates in early RFID pilots have been as high as 20% to 30%. Unfortunately, "relatively high reliability" is unacceptable if an RFID mandate calls for a 100% read rate.
  • Poorly performing tags also are an issue. Tag performance differs depending on many factors, including what materials are adjacent to each tag and environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity. RFID tags are not one-tag-fits-all. Companies must use a variety of RFID tags to meet the needs of a variety of products being tagged.

  • Damaged RFID tags: RFID tags come in a variety of shapes and sizes with various types of enclosures, so issues vary from tag to tag. Yet every type of tag can become damaged somewhere in the supply chain.
  • For manufacturers that will be paid when retailers receive their products, damaged tags could result in retailers receiving products that aren't detected by their RFID readers. Since tag reading happens automatically without line of sight and no human interaction, it can be difficult to know when certain tags are not read. This becomes a serious issue for business applications built around RFID if 100% read rates are implicit as part of the core business application design.

    Business applications can address this issue to some extent by using business rules to predict when reads seem incomplete (for example, knowing how many cases are normally expected on a pallet for each product or knowing when a case is read without a corresponding pallet read).

  • Tag cost: For manufacturers that ship millions of cases to retailers each year, tag cost is very much an issue when considering widespread RFID deployment. Higher-functioning tags cost as much as $5 to $6 per tag, while passive tags being mandated today can be in the 20 cents to $1.25 per-tag range.
  • Even if the price were just pennies per tag, the cost could still be significant for high-volume manufacturers. When manufacturers are required to tag individual items, the tag cost issue will grow substantially, even if the cost of tags declines significantly.

  • Changing tag standards: Wal-Mart and other retailers have chosen to use passive RFID tags. In the future, some retailers will use higher-functioning passive tags or even semiactive and active tags for higher priced items or items needing tags with additional sensors.
  • Changing tag standards will bring changes to RFID infrastructure, including multiprotocol, multifrequency tag readers that can read many types of tags. This reality of constant change will surely bring about quicker technology obsolescence for early RFID deployments.

    RFID readers come in several broad categories, including conveyor, portal, forklift, and handheld. Within each category come many varieties. Each reader is manufactured to read certain tags (such as passive, semiactive, or active) using specific frequency ranges (such as low, high, UHF, or microwave) and is configured to read certain protocols.

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