RFID for Dummies–a Simple Explanation

What is RFID?

RFID stands for Radio Frequency IDentification.  You’ve probably heard about it before.  One Wisconsin company recently made headlines when it announced plans to embed RFID devices under the skin of its employees.   But what exactly does that mean?  And how does it work?  In short, it’s a technology that’s useful for keeping track of persons, pets and things.RFID for Dummies snapshot of RFID tags

How does it work?  Here’s a simplified analogy:  Suppose you fill several beer (or soda) bottles with differing levels of water.  When you blow across the mouth of the bottles, each one makes a unique sound, depending on how much water it contains.

RFID works in much the same way.  Think of an RFID device as one of the bottles.  But we don’t blow on it to generate sound waves.  Instead, we use an RFID reader which “blows” an electronic signal across the device.  Just as each bottle makes a unique sound, each RFID chip responds with a unique radio wave signature.  Store these signatures in a database, and voila!  You’ve got a system that can track millions of items.

RFID devices come in a huge array of shapes and sizes.  Tiny grain-sized units that can be injected under the skin of your favorite pet.  Larger devices may come equipped with batteries (AKA Active tags)–enabling them to generate much stronger signals.  (Active tags can be very useful for tracking tools, rental equipment, and so forth.)

The Benefits

You might ask, “Why not just use barcodes?”  Oftentimes you can.   But realize that you’ll need a clear line of sight to bounce a laser beam off each barcode.  If you need to scan a box of parts, you’ll have to open the box and manually scan each barcode.

Here’s where RFID offers a big advantage. With the right scanner and software, you can scan multiple RFID tags simultaneously.  This allows you to collect data faster–without opening or disturbing the outer packaging.

Another advantage of RFID tags: durability.  Barcodes are usually printed on paper and can easily tear or smudge.  On the other hand, most RFID tags are embedded inside a plastic housing. This makes them impervious to moisture and moderate heat. In fact, many uniform and cleaning companies sew RFID tags into the hem of uniforms.  This helps to track items through hundreds of wash and dry cycles.

Here at I/O Technologies Inc., we utilize RFID badges and readers in our FastPunch! timeclock software.  FastPunch! allows employees to clock in and out by simply waving an RFID badge in front of a reader.

If you’re contemplating a project that involves tracking inventory, tools, vehicles, or people, RFID makes a lot of sense.   Contact us to discuss the pros and cons of RFID, and how you might opt to incorporate it in your next project.

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