All that hype surrounding radio-frequency identification (RFID), particularly those predictions for gargantuan growth in the retail supply chain, seems to have simmered down. Though it's bounced around for more than 20 years and has the support of industry consortium EPCglobal, Electronic Product Code (EPC) RFID tagging still waits to become the next big thing.
While implementation of the EPCglobal Gen 2 standard for supply-chain tagging has rolled out much more slowly than many analysts predicted, the program does continue to push forward. Before long, RFID carton and pallet tagging will join the dozens of other established RFID applications—from toll transponders to animal tags—that track and identify everyday items without line of sight and tie the physical world to the IT realm. Despite its snail-like progression, some heat remains behind the Gen 2 hype. The standard has united the tracking demands of major retailers like Target and Wal-Mart with the packaging initiatives of consumer-goods manufacturers. More importantly, EPC was the first major initiative to move RFID beyond its traditional closed-loop paradigm: Often, all parts of the system come from the same supplier, or at least they're precisely tuned for a given application. While such closed-loop systems work well, they aren't really relevant in the toolbox of electronic designers—except for those who have directly been designing the RFID systems. And now, that's starting to change.
With a combination of open standards and a potential ubiquity of low-cost readers and tagged goods, RFID is moving away from proprietary applications toward a more fluid future. Readers and tags will be embedded inside cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices. As an electronic designer, you may soon find yourself designing RFID into your next product.
One key driver in this new wave of applications is the use of RFID for "pairing," or automatically identifying items that need to be coupled. These items can include electronics peripherals establishing communications or consumable components that need to be correctly matched or controlled.
EM Microelectronic, the semiconductor company of the Swatch Group, has implemented numerous projects where physical objects are logically bound via RFID. One example involves "smart refills" for electrical appliances with replaceable parts, such as electric toothbrush heads. Another is inkjet print cartridges that communicate their identity to a printer, which adapts its performance accordingly.
EM president Mougahed Darwish says that in pairing applications, an electronic device integrates an RFID reader chip, and the corresponding disposable or refill part integrates a transponder chip. The transponder operates as a configurable EEPROM, and the "host" device can then adapt its behavior according to the parameters that are communicated.
The miniaturization, low power, and new capabilities of the latest RFID reader ICs operating at 13.56 MHz make it easier for systems designers to develop embedded RFID applications, according to Johnsy Varghese, manager of high-frequency reader products at Texas Instruments.
The newest RF chips feature more functionality, such as an integrated analog front end, encoders/decoders, filters, voltage regulators, variable gain settings, automatic gain control (AGC), and available output supply and clock for external circuitry. These features reduce overall system complexity, bill of materials (BOM), and the need for additional software. Furthermore, smaller RF chip packages about the size of a quarter enable smaller system designs that expand the realm of products for embedded RFID.
Startup company SkyeTek focuses on low-cost embedded tag readers that can work with standards-based tags from any supplier. Having trademarked the term "tagnostic," SkyeTek CEO Rob Balgley says RFID readers have traditionally been designed for given markets, like the supply chain, and have been complex and expensive.
SkyeTek's goal is a common RFID architecture, creating a commonality around frequency protocol and choice of tags. "We make it a lot easier for somebody to make different design decisions. They don't have to get locked into a particular frequency or a particular protocol or even a particular tag, because we are pretty agonistic with regard to all three of those," Balgley says.
The company's HF and UHF products have the same mechanical, electrical, and software interfaces—even the same pin-outs. At the last minute, then, the designer can decide between UHF and HF. "Or, if you've got a whole family of products and you want to go in both directions, your inventory and stock is simplified," he says (Fig. 1).
SkyeTek's goal is the least expensive hardware platform with the greatest amount of functionality and performance in the software. When designing RFID for embedded systems, Balgley says, it's important to keep BOM cost low. "You don't want to hand somebody a BOM with a lot of expensive parts, high-end amplifiers, and parts like circulators, which, in and of themselves, can be $100 to $200," he says.
The M9 UHF SkyeModule uses low-cost cell-phone components. The UHF board costs $200, a price Balgley says is 50% lower than competitive modules, while offering a 3-m read range at 20 or 30 tags per second. SkyeTek also licenses its modules, driving costs lower and enhancing the level of integration.
The ease of embedding RFID technology is opening new markets, and SkyeTek foresees traditional RFID applications like inventory management and access control converging into one market. "There won't be this fragmented, nonconsolidated view of RFID. When there's one big market, that's where things get interesting in terms of being able to scale revenue and innovation," says Balgley.
PERSONALIZATION AND PAIRING
SkyeTek sees a big market in using RFID for personalization. Brunswick, the exercise equipment manufacturer, plans to use the technology to automate the configuration of stair climbers and treadmills. By embedding tags in health-club member- ship cards, clubs automate members' workout histories and save staff time otherwise wasted in manually setting up the machines.
RFID integrates the physical world with IT services and ultimately with Internet Protocol. RFID readers embedded in office equipment like conference phones or copiers can readily automate departmental billing. Sirit Inc. sold 2500 of its Infinity Micro modules to AirGATE for integration into an RFID-enabled telephone system. A telephony OEM is now putting that system into phones in correctional facilities nationwide. Prisoners will wear RFID-enabled wristbands to identify who is making a prison-based collect phone call.
Other RFID developers are licensing their technology, too. In the active RFID arena, Savi Technology opened its technology via the ISO 18000-7 active RFID air protocol standard, operating at 433.92 MHz with applications in shipping container security.
"Broad participation in the licensing program is a sign of a maturing market for active RFID and a confirmation that standardization will continue to turbo-charger this marketplace," says Savi CEO Bob Kramer. He notes that the standard helps establish a baseline for the interoperability of RFID-based electronic seals and container security devices.
NFC NEARLY HERE
Pairing is also crucial for the Near Field Communication (NFC) initiative. NFC offers a two-way, short-range communications protocol. NFC-enabled devices can act as either an RFID tag or reader, depending on the application.
NFC was selected in November as a connectivity solution for Wi-Fi-enabled devices. To set up Wi-Fi communications using NFC, two devices only need to be brought close together. NFC handles the pairing, establishing the communications protocols between them.
According to Manuel Albers, director of regional marketing for the Americas, Identification, at NXP Semiconductors, the first Wi-Fi and NFC combo products should hit the market during the second half of this year. For example, Sirit has demonstrated a USB dongle that incorporates NFC to facilitate Wi-Fi setup, a function that many consumers could use some help with right away.
"Wireless routers have a return rate of up to 70%, simply because people are struggling with setting the device up," says Albers. "Cutting down that return rate could pay for integrating NFC, or at least including a USB fob to facilitate the automatic setup."
Standards groups for Wireless USB, Bluetooth, and Ultra-Wideband (UWB) are considering other NFC "pairing" initiatives. "These are all applications NXP didn't even have in mind when we created NFC, in combination with Sony 2002," says Albers.
Microsoft has joined the NFC Forum and is looking to ensure compatibility and support of NFC with drivers in the Microsoft Windows platform. "Microsoft has a lot of good ideas" on how to use NFC, says Albers, adding, "these are all being discussed under NDA (non-disclosure agreements)."
The cell phone remains the key market focus for NFC. "Once you have a significant deployment of NFC-enabled phones," says Albers, "you have a broad infrastructure of inexpensive readers. Simply add NFC on to the mobile phone, and you have an RFID-enabled reader in your hand."
The NFC-enabled phone, he says, complies with RFID standards: for contactless smart-card payment infrastructure, ISO 14443; for object identification and object tracking, ISO 15693 (for the technical side of the implementation) and ISO 18000 (for the application side of the supply chain). An initiative is under way to harmonize the EPC Gen 2 standard with ISO 18000 for UHF (Gen 2) and HF 13.56 frequencies (Fig. 2).
"With that, you are compliant with already deployed standards, and you can integrate transport and payment and can read tags attached to objects and goods in the supply chain," says Albers. With NFC cell phones integrated into the equation, he adds, "you have very inexpensive readers available." Users can add NFC functionality to existing phones via a Secure Digital (SD) card slot, enabling smart phones like Palm devices with the contactless interface.
RFID ON THE PHONE
IDTechEx expects RFID-enhanced phones to grow to 300 million units by 2010 and 600 million units by 2015 (Fig. 3). LG's Active Tagging Group in Korea says it aims to sell 1 billion active tags by 2010.
IDTechEx also predicts growth from RFID used in combination with other wireless technologies. RFID can be merged with GPS or GSM for identifying and locating people or assets. RFID tags can piggyback on preexisting Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or two-way radio communications. Examples include Radianse combining active RFID with Bluetooth to locate nurses in hospitals and Connexion2's use of GSM to contact police if social workers are threatened.