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What is RFID asset tracking and how does it work?

The last few decades have seen a real boom in asset tracking software for business use, and this can surely be no surprise. After all, for any organisation that has physical assets – such as IT equipment, vehicles, portable tools, machinery, stock or even employees – to manage, monitor and track, having to depend on pen and paper or Excel spreadsheets is a less-than-optimal solution for minimising errors.

One technology that has come to assume a strong role in such asset tracking software, despite its history far predating this, is Radio-Frequency Identification, or RFID.

But what actually is RFID, how has it become so essential in the management of physical assets, and what else should organisations know about this technology?

What is RFID asset tracking?

RFID tracking systems have essentially existed since the Second World War, when this technology was used for the tracking and identification of enemy aircraft. As RFID has evolved over the subsequent decades, it has been gradually embraced much more widely for the tracking of physical ‘things’.

RFID asset tracking is a means of automating the process of managing and locating physical assets. It involves an RFID tag being loaded with data and attached to a relevant asset. The data can include information on a wide range of aspects of the asset, such as its name, condition, cost and location.

An RFID tag produces repeatedly pulsing radio waves, through which an RFID reader captures the tag’s stored data. This information can then be gathered together in an asset tracking system, which allows for monitoring and acting upon the data.  

How does RFID asset tracking work?

The general principles of how RFID asset tracking works are fairly consistent across a broad range of applications.

Essentially, data is stored on an RFID tag with a unique Electronic Product Code (EPC), with this being attached to an asset. An antenna detects the signal of a RFID tag nearby, and receives the tag’s stored data, before transferring this information to an RFID reader.

The RFID reader, which is wirelessly connected to the antenna, then transmits this data to an asset tracking database, from which it can be stored and evaluated.

What are the benefits of using RFID to track assets?

The use of RFID technology for tracking assets has been shown to deliver various benefits for asset-heavy organisations.

Those benefits include significantly reduced costs and labour time, due to the automation of such processes as asset monitoring and data collection. Much less human intervention is required with an RFID asset tracking system, compared to the traditional manual alternatives such as spreadsheets.

What’s more, the relative affordability of the tools that make up an effective RFID asset tracking system means that the organisation using it can expect a good return on investment (ROI).

A business doesn’t need a certain level of revenue before it can contemplate investing in this form of asset tracking, as small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have routinely used it, alongside larger enterprises with assets spread across multiple sites and warehouses.

Having in place a system for locating assets in real time also helps reduce the number of assets within an organisation that are lost or stolen. This, in turn, further aids in lowering the business’s costs.

RFID vs. Barcode vs. Near Field Communication: Which technology is best for tracking assets?

Prior to the popularisation of RFID asset tracking, barcode was the go-to technology for asset management and inventory tracking. We’re probably all familiar with what barcodes are visually – a set of parallel black and white lines in a square shape, representing data in code that machines and scanners can read.

It’s not difficult to see how barcode asset tracking systems became so popular – they’re easy to use, cheap, and accurate. They do have some downsides, however; only one barcode label can be scanned at a time, and only a small amount of data can be stored on a barcode, amounting to just 8-25 characters’ worth of data on a 1D barcode. In addition, a barcode needs to be in a visible line-of-sight in order to be scanned.

This differs somewhat from the situation with RFID, given that as many as 35 RFID labels can be tracked simultaneously. RFID labels can also carry much more data, and are more durable than barcode labels, which are notoriously susceptible to damage.

So, what about RFID and Near Field Communication (NFC) technology? NFC can be considered a subset or more advanced version of RFID. It is a much more recent trend than RFID as a whole – only effectively having been invented in the 2000s – and operates within the RFID spectrum’s high frequency (HF) range.

While NFC builds on the ideas of RFID, it does take a slightly different form. RFID is typically a three-part system comprising the tag, antenna and reader, whereas in the case of NFC, one device is used, with the system consisting of just the tag and reader.

Whether RFID or NFC would be the best option for your organisation depends on your exact priorities and requirements from asset tracking. Nonetheless, here at ACMS UK, we have very much embraced the benefits of both technologies, NFC tags having now been fully integrated to work in conjunction with a number of the modules within our Vision software.

Uses of RFID asset tracking

RFID asset tracking technology has been adopted for use across an extremely wide range of industries, encompassing the likes of industry and logistics, IT and technology tracking, the military, the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, location and condition monitoring, and many other important sectors.

RFID solutions have been used to especially innovative effect in supply chain management, and even in healthcare facilities in the fight against COVID-19.

In the latter instance, the microchips in RFID tags have been invaluable for such purposes as authenticating coronavirus test kits and vaccine tests, monitoring and tracking Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) inventory, and tracking the journey of plasma used in vaccine trials.

Other types of asset tracking technology to consider

As we have already briefly touched on, RFID is not the only available technology for asset tracking.

Barcodes and QR codes have long been used by many organisations for this purpose, with benefits including their affordability and ease of use. But as we have also previously addressed, barcodes are greatly restricted in how much data they can contain, and must be in a visible line-of-sight if a reader is to detect them.

Another well-known solution for tracking assets in transit is Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. A GPS tracker communicates with satellites to gain accurate real-time data on a given asset’s location. While this is an expensive technology that does not lend itself well to indoor tracking, it has proved a useful solution for firms involved in logistics, transport and fleet management.

Would you like to learn more about the RFID and NFC capabilities of ACMS’s Vision platform and how it can streamline your asset management, tracking and monitoring? If so, contact ACMS today to discuss how our Vision software could save you time and money in your day-to-day operations.