How Improvements in RFID are Creating New Application Opportunities

Author : Mark Patrick, Mouser Electronics

15 April 2024

Figure 1: Inductive coupling for LF and HF systems (including NFC)
Figure 1: Inductive coupling for LF and HF systems (including NFC)

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is a well-established technology that’s been around for many years (with the earliest examples of passive RF transponders introduced back in the 1970s).

Most of us now use it every day without even actually noticing - but you might be surprised by some of the latest developments in RFID and the applications that this technology is enabling.

Since its introduction, RFID technology has delivered increasingly heightening speeds, better accuracy, plus more features, while costs have continued to fall. This has led to the RFID market expanding substantially, with the breadth of applications served increasing. According to research firm MarketsandMarkets, the global RFID business is projected to be worth $40.9 billion by 2032. That represents a significant rise on the $15.8 billion revenues it generated last year - meaning that a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.1% will be experienced over that period.

Loss prevention and the rising costs of assets are increasing the uptake of RFID tags in sectors like distribution and retail. Advancements in supporting technologies, such as Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) hardware, are driving growth in industrial scenarios. Other sectors that require rapid and accurate asset management, including aerospace and elite motorsport, have also started using RFID to track tools and components (for both performance and safety reasons). 

RFID essentials
RFID is typically based on a reader device using RF signals to communicate with a transponder or tag. RFID is a general term that can include various wireless technologies and standards, enabling customers to choose the best option for their particular application. 

There are 2 basic tag types: 
  •  Active tags - Which are self-powered by their own battery. 
  •  Passive tags - Which are powered only by the reader’s RF signal. 

Most RFID tags are passive. While active tags offer a longer range, they are larger and more expensive.

Figure 2: SL2S2002 block diagram [Image source: NXP, redrawn by Mouser]
Figure 2: SL2S2002 block diagram [Image source: NXP, redrawn by Mouser]

RFID can rely on different RF frequencies with unique characteristics. The 3 most common frequency bands are: 
  •  Low frequency (LF) - Operating in the 125kHz to 145kHz band.
  •  High frequency (HF) - Which operates at 13.56MHz. 
  •  Ultra-high frequency (UHF) - Typically focused on the 865MHz to 955MHz band, but can also make use of the 2.4GHz band. 

LF and HF systems are both highly suited to short-range applications (from a few cm up to a couple of m). The reader creates a magnetic field that transfers energy from the coil of the reader to the coil of the tag using inductive coupling. This provides enough power to wake the tag and for it to subsequently communicate with the reader (see Figure 1).

When greater range is required, UHF systems can operate up to about 6m with passive tags, or more than 100m with active tags. Instead of using inductive coupling, UHF arrangements rely on a technique called backscatter coupling to transfer energy and data between the reader and the tag. 

Key RFID application examples 
Asset tracking - RFID is widely used to track people and assets, in manufacturing, distribution/logistics and Industry 4.0. For such applications, the extra range of active tags is often useful, while alternatively the low costs associated with passive tags enables them to be utilised on almost any item.

In manufacturing, RFID tracking can be applied to the constituent components that will make up the final product, as well as to tools, equipment and other movable assets. The information provided by such tracking helps companies to manage their operations more effectively, reduce the paperwork involved and improve overall efficiency. It can also be of value from a preventative maintenance perspective, enabling long-term equipment operation to be benefited from and avoiding any downtime inconveniences.

In avionics, RFID tool tracking is used to identify and track tools as part of maintenance, repair and overhaul operations. Being able to always find the right tool in the right place is invaluable when delays can prove extremely costly. Rugged RFID tags are also able to handle the harsh conditions experienced by aerospace components in flight.

Figure 3: Hardware block diagram for NFC/RFID transceiver reference modules using TRF7970A technology [Image source: Texas Instruments, redrawn by Mouser]
Figure 3: Hardware block diagram for NFC/RFID transceiver reference modules using TRF7970A technology [Image source: Texas Instruments, redrawn by Mouser]

Retail and fashion - Retailers can reduce delivery times and keep their customers better informed by tracking items in the supply chain with RFID. It is also widely implemented by the fashion sector - both in relation to outlets (as a security measure to prevent theft) plus distribution (so as to combat counterfeiting and the prevalence of grey market goods).

Computing consumables - Another example of RFID product authentication is in relation to printer ink cartridges. These are widely counterfeited, taking revenue away from the printer manufacturer. By building low-cost passive RFID tags into its cartridges and readers into the printer units, manufacturers can ensure only genuine cartridges can be used.

Robotics navigation - Robots that move around factories or our homes are becoming increasingly commonplace. They need to have awareness of their location, and be able to identify objects in close proximity - but this may be more difficult than it seems. Camera-based systems, for example, require lots of computing power and can struggle when items are in the wrong place or not orientated correctly, or when ambient lighting is bad. Instead, RFID tags provide a reliable, low-cost means for robots to find their way about. These tags can be placed in specific locations and the robot is then presented with a ‘map’ based on these locations, so it knows where it is. Or, the robot can simply build its own map by identifying the RFID tags around it.

NFC payment systems
An important derivative of RFID is near-field communication (NFC), which relies on the 13.56MHz HF frequency. NFC has become a ubiquitous option for payments in billions of smartphone handsets, smart cards and other devices. The technology has a range of less than 10cm, which helps maintain security and avoid accidental connections.

NFC provides the standardisation required for universal interoperability, as well as the security features needed to keep payments safe. Tags may either be passive (as in contactless smart cards without batteries) or active (enabling a smartphone to read, exchange and alter more complex information).

RFID product options
Through its various supply partners, Mouser offers a broad product range for attending to RFID applications - giving design engineers the flexibility needed to select the best option for their specific criteria. In addition, development kits can be sourced, which shorten time-to-market and reduce design costs. 

Figure 4: Murata’s LXMS MAGICSTRAP RFID modules [Image source: Murata]
Figure 4: Murata’s LXMS MAGICSTRAP RFID modules [Image source: Murata]

Addressing tags and transponders, NXP Semiconductors’ SL2S2002 ICODE SLIX IC (as shown in Figure 2) is a dedicated chip for intelligent label applications. This 3rd generation device conforms to ISO/IEC 15693 and ISO/IEC 18000-3 standards, and can be operated without line-of-sight up to distances of 1.5m, while not requiring a battery. Intelligent anti-collision functionality means that several tags can operate in the field simultaneously. 

For RFID readers, Texas Instruments offers the TRF7970A integrated 13.56MHz RFID and NFC transceiver IC (see Figure 3). It includes an analogue front end and data-framing, while built-in programming options make the device suitable for a wide range of use cases, in relation to proximity and vicinity identification systems. It can perform in 3 different modes. These are RFID/NFC reader, NFC peer, or card emulation.

Available as UHF and HF devices, Murata’s LXMS MAGICSTRAP RFID modules (shown in Figure 4) can attend to a multitude of different tasks. When mounted on to PCBs, these modules are very effective in a product traceability context. 

RFID is a technology that has gained immense popularity and is now integrated into billions of devices across countless widespread industries. But within the world of RFID, there are many different options that design engineers must consider - in terms of the frequency utilised, the range covered, the various wireless protocols and standards, etc. 

Keeping up to date with the latest innovations in the market via distribution partners like Mouser is vital for project success when deploying RFID solutions. While historically, the cost of RFID deployment in some sectors has outweighed its potential benefits, this is no longer the case for most industries - with new possibilities thus opening up. Across sectors ranging from aerospace and motorsport through to medical and retail, RFID plays a vital role in increasing efficiency and preventing loss. While we are already seeing a diverse array of prospective applications emerging, this will only increase as the market continues to mature and the technology becomes even more viable for a wider audience. 

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