RFID & Its Challenges in 21st Century

Dr. Hossein Eslambolchi
May 2012

RFID is becoming a formidable force in every aspect of our daily lives. The technology has been quickly and easily adopted by the telecommunications, medical, and transportation industries. There are several major RFID/EPC issues that need to be examined in detail before the technology can be adopted across every aspect of the business environment. Widespread adoption will improve efficiency, increase customer satisfaction, lower cycle time and eliminate defects.

I’d like to investigate four areas of general interest.


Four Domains of Interest

  1. Customer premises – factory, warehouse, campus, or store
  1. The enterprise – multiple facilities, often globally dispersed
  1. The extranet – multiple interacting supply chains and communities of interest
  1. The industry – infrastructure resources that enable all of the above

Customer Premises

The physical equipment deployed on premise poses numerous challenges. How does the equipment cost-effectively interoperate with other infrastructure elements, including routers, local area networks, wireless networks, and emerging technologies such as VoIP over WLAN / WiFi? Trained network design professionals are needed to engineer networks for minimal interference and cost and maximum performance. Additionally, how do we determine the right mix of wired and wireless technologies to deploy infrastructure? In factories, what impact will interference and noise have on performance and dropped packets? And once the network is deployed, ongoing management and maintenance is required to assure proper functioning and highest levels of availability. Although customers can do this on their own, many customers have found that there are substantial advantages to out-tasking such management to skilled, full-time professionals.

The Enterprise

Once data has been captured by a reader, one or more RFID tags representing a pallet, a carton, or an item must be transported to an information repository, and managed together with hundreds, thousands, or millions of other facts related to the tracking history of that item. Information about other instances of that item or other items from the same or different manufacturers must be managed as well.

Moving and managing the data associated with these items as they move from location to location presents a challenge. Some applications will put a minimal load on enterprise networks, because the tracking data can piggyback on existing core networks. However, some of these same applications may require enhancements to branch networks, which may be coalesced with investments to bring branch data processing up to the standards of the multimedia era — especially if tags are read multiple times or move from the carton/pallet to the item level. Some applications — such as mobile inventory in crowded warehouses — may impose an unusual type of load on the network, as data flows from branches up to central servers, rather than the usual way — from the center out.

Many applications will require RFID and EPC data to be archived for several years. If you consider a typical retail supercenter, with hundreds of thousands or millions of individual items, turning over multiple times each year, each of which has been tracked through dozens of tracking points, the magnitude of the data management problem becomes clear. How do we archive, search, discover, and prevent tampering with such data? How do we build secure networks and applications to collect, transport, manage, and discover such data? Do customers really need to maintain their own applications? Or can they benefit from a trusted provider who can host their data and applications in the network, and dynamically manage quality of service and bandwidth in enterprise networks? Can this provider support RFID / EPC applications cost-effectively in conjunction with other applications, LAN/WLAN infrastructure applications such as VoIP, enterprise content distribution, core enterprise networks, business continuity applications, and the like?

There are several key lifecycle questions involved in EPC information management:

  1. How do I acquire the product data tracking or pallet/container tracking transaction at the point of capture?
  2. How do I securely, efficiently, and cost-effectively move the data to a point of data management?
  3. How do I cost-effectively manage data while meeting requirements for non-volatility, privacy, security, and non-erasability?
  4. How do I provide access to product data and tracking data, leveraging standards such as XML and Web Services?
  5. How do I mine the data or visualize patterns in materials handling, distribution, or inventory management?
  6. How do I efficiently query or search the data or discover information across such as massive database?

To successfully answer these questions across multiple facilities demands numerous technologies, applied within a comprehensive solution framework:

  1. Data storage
  2. Networking
  3. Information life cycle management
  4. Very large database management
  5. High speed querying
  6. Data visualization and user interface design
  7. Remote data mirroring and replication
  8. Low-latency metropolitan area networks
  9. Conditioned and secure physical facilities

All of these technologies must work in concert to create a complete service.


The Extranet

Although there are clear benefits to automated materials and product data tracking, tracing, and management, many of the benefits of RFID/EPC will become available through applications which cross enterprises. Arguably, while this is one of the more difficult aspects of the system to solve, it holds the promise of the most gains in efficiency. For example, a large manufacturer may tag product items which a shipping company then moves through multiple cross-docking locations, eventually ending up at a distributor, and from there, on to a retailer. Within the retailer, 3rd parties may transport goods from a warehouse or logistics center to stores.


This clearly presents challenges, especially since each manufacturer is interacting with dozens or even possibly hundreds of retailers, and each retailer is dealing with hundreds or even thousands of manufacturers. Ultimately, the benefits of RFID/EPC accrue from reduced shrinkage, authoritative product information management, automated supply chain information management / collaboration tasks such as automated reconciliation of advanced shipping notices, electronic purchase orders and payments, and better tracking of the actual goods shipped.

Many challenges are caused by all these interactions, including transaction security and related questions of privacy, non-repudiation, membership, directory, and single sign on. Additionally, where should the data reside? A structure has been defined involving Electronic Product Code Directory Services and Electronic Product Code Information Services, but it is a long way from working, secure, extranet applications that cross multiple stages in the supply chain.

The Industry

Finally, beyond the level of individual companies or supply chains, there are the standards and infrastructure that make comprehensive RIFD/EPC work. For example, root object name servers help determine, for a particular electronic product code, which URL information may be located at. Evolving standards will also help ensure that such queries are performed efficiently and securely.


These four major key points needs to be seriously considered as part of any deployment of RFID/EPC to improve cycle time, lower cost and improve efficiency across the business.