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Access Control

RFID: One Name yet with Multiple Uses

RFID plays a new and larger role to secure people, places and products.

Security uses for RFID technology are quickly expanding from identifying people and providing access control to protecting assets, documents, products and even brands. Today there are RFID systems in place to protect patients from counterfeit drugs, now estimated at 10 percent of all pharmaceuticals worldwide, stop the spread of food contaminated by disease or tampering, and help manufacturers and retailers fight the billions of dollars they lose to theft in the supply chain which in turn protects consumers from the costs and dangers of diverted and counterfeit products. Traditional ID and access control applications also continue to expand and evolve, and now RFID is a trusted component in border control, passport and other applications that require extremely high security and reliability.

By Chris Kelley


Business, regulatory and society needs for more security, maturing RFID technology, and the rapid development of complementary standards and software are driving these innovations.  There was US$2.6 billion worth of RFID equipment, software and services sold worldwide in 2006, and the market is expected to grow 35 percent annually through 2008, according to a market research firm, Venture Development Corp. (VDC).  There is exceptionally strong growth and adoption for RFID technologies that can be used in innovative security applications.  For example, technology that conforms to the EPCglobal Gen 2/ISO 18000-6C standard, which is used in a variety of track-and-trace, anti-counterfeiting and asset protection applications, is expected to have 88 percent annual sales growth through 2009.

Let’s look at where adoption is growing and how RFID provides effective protection against fake drugs and other counterfeit products, potentially harmful food, asset and inventory theft, and at innovations in access control and personal identification.




First its important to remember there are different kinds of RFID technology.   The best-known examples in security are tags and ID badges used to unlock doors or open parking gates.  These systems usually use 125 KHz or 13.56 MHz technology, which has fairly limited range and is inexpensive.  Another well-known application is tracking cargo containers and other large, high-value assets that may be read from more than 100 feet away.  Tags for these applications can cost more than US$50 each.

Most of the recent RFID innovation in technology and security applications has centered on technology that is between these two extremes, specifically EPC/ISO-standard UHF (860-960 MHz) technology and related information systems.  UHF technology has a read range of up to about 20 feet and is well suited to personal ID, access control and asset management applications.  In fact, several high-profile projects in these areas use UHF technology, including the U.S. governments NEXUS border crossing ID card program and the supply chain tracking and security systems created by Wal-Mart, METRO Group and other global retailers.  The performance, price and security features of Gen 2/ISO 18000-standard RFID technology make it very practical and effective for a variety of security and asset management uses.




EPC Gen 2 is much more than a technical specification.  It is a system of related technology and business process standards that let multiple trading partners securely trace goods throughout the supply chain.  Each EPC RFID tag has serial number that provides unique, lifetime identification.   Complementary Gen 2 communications standards and business services provide an open, standard way to share this information to gain visibility into operations, inventory and asset status.  Software applications then take advantage of the up-to-date information to provide different monitoring and alert features.

For example, consider a hypothetical electronics manufacturer that applies EPC shipping labels on its products.  The manufacturer ships 20 cases of its hot new video game release to a retailer.  If only 19 cases arrive at the retailers distribution center, the manufacturer and its logistics provider can get real-time notification.  RFID makes it practical to verify each case at shipping, receiving and other process points.  In fact, these checks are often performed without any manual labor.  The ease, efficiency and accuracy of RFID tracking in the supply chain help companies create processes that deter diversion.  Applications can also be set up to tell exactly which individual games were missing, which would give retailers a convenient way to fight return fraud by verifying product authenticity.

Gen 2 tags also support privacy protection.  They can be set only to communicate with authorized readers, to prevent viewing by others.  Gen 2 tags can also be permanently disabled by readers so tag data can never be accessed after tags leave the controlled setting of the supply chain.

‘Smart shelf’ RFID shelf monitoring applications have long been considered a tool to prevent shoplifting, but since retailers have more goods stolen from their storage areas than their stores, RFID could be more effective there.  Retail giant METRO Group has created EPC-based applications for stock monitoring and reported an 18 percent reduction in lost goods, plus labor savings for receiving and recording incoming shipments.

The pharmaceutical industry leads in using RFID for traceability and security.   The motivation is to stop the spread of counterfeits, which the World Health Organization estimates account for approximately 10 percent of the global drug supply.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established new identification and tracking requirements for pharmaceuticals after it became convinced RFID was a secure and practical option for collecting and communicating the data.  Several states established their own requirements before the FDA, and leading drug makers and distributors including Cardinal Health, GlaxoSmithKline, McKesson, Pfizer and Purdue Pharma, have all announced EPC-based programs.

The pharmaceutical supply chain uses RFID to create electronic pedigree records to record the chain of custody for specific products.  These applications make use of two important characteristics of EPC Gen 2 technology: unique item identification by serialization, and rewritable memory on the tag itself.  In electronic pedigree applications, tags are permanently encoded with a serial number that identifies the product and cannot be altered.  Each time the product changes hands, for example, when a third-party logistics provider picks it up from the factory, the tag is automatically read to record the serial number, and a transaction code complete with a time and date stamp is securely encoded into another portion of tag memory.  Digital signatures may also be applied and verified at other points in the process.  Electronic records can be easily accessed and verified throughout the supply chain, and there are complementary EPC standards and commercial solutions for securely sharing the information with trading partners.

It’s not hard to imagine how a similar system could be developed to meet traceability requirements for food, including the European Union Food Law and the U.S. Bioterrorism Act.  Other types of RFID technology are used to identify livestock and produce to help food processors provide “farm-to-fork” traceability.  Industrial manufacturers use similar RFID applications to meet their product genealogy and lifetime identification needs.

RFID-based processes can be adapted to meet traceability needs in other industries.  To help, in January 2007 EPCglobal announced its Electronic Pedigree Document standard for creating RFID-based electronic pedigrees.   The standard is not limited to foods or pharmaceuticals, and is compatible with EPCglobal’s previously released multi-industry Global Traceability Standard.

Packaged software for RFID-based pedigree applications is now available.  The emergence of this product category is a good example of how standards and technology maturity are making RFID easier to use and available to more types of businesses.




Securing products and inventory is an emerging use of RFID, but using the technology to track equipment and fixed assets is established and proven effective.  RFID is an excellent complement to asset management applications because it provides a permanent, secure way to identify items ranging from PCs to tractor-trailers.  Tracking reusable shipping containers with RFID is beneficial because it streamlines asset management and resource allocation, and can provide real-time alerts if containers are moved or loaded onto unauthorized vehicles, and can reduce labor in day-to-day operations.

Applications can be as simple as using an RFID employee ID card to record items checked out of a tool crib or other asset pool.  Permanent tags are applied to high-value tools and equipment and read when an employee checks the tool out for use.  If RFID employee ID cards are used, check-in and check-out operations could be completely automated by positioning readers to automatically record all item movements and the person associated with them. These applications provide information that deters unauthorized borrowing or theft, prevents time-wasting searches for missing items and improves asset utilization.  New asset management applications can often be integrated with RFID access control systems that are already in place.

The next step in these applications is to use RFID readers in the facility to report asset locations.  Many of these systems have been done with active RFID and Real Time Locating System (RTLS) technologies, but now they are being implemented with less expensive and commonly available Wi-Fi tags that leverage wireless LANs that are already in place.

For example, a materials handling equipment manufacturer, Cascade teamed with Intermec, Cisco Systems and a software provider, RedPrarie to demonstrate an RFID-enabled “forklift of the future” that can be tracked throughout a facility.  A Cisco appliance on the forklift helps an 802.11-standard wireless LAN track the forklift and any goods it is carrying.  The data can issue alerts for unauthorized product movements, monitor asset utilization and provide reports complete with time, date and location data.  Organizations have applied similar principles to track laptops, test equipment, tools, storage containers, samples and evidence.

Location tracking can be extended outside the four walls of a facility using a combination of RFID, wide-area wireless communication and GPS technologies.  The U.S. military pioneered these applications to track critical supply shipments.  Now automakers, shippers and other private-sector companies are using similar systems to get real-time notification of problems or exceptions that occur to goods in transit, including delays, diversion, or evidence that vehicles or containers have been tampered with.  There are also RFID-enabled cargo seals and tamper-evident packaging materials for securing shipments.




And of course trucks and other vehicles are often tagged for verification by gate readers before they enter a facility, which brings up access control, the most common security application for RFID technology.  RFID access control is well established, but innovation continues, with Gen 2 again playing a role.  The U.S. government selected the Gen 2 standard for use in its electronic passport card program.  Earlier in the year the U.S. State Department began issuing passports to diplomats that have the passport number, expiration date plus the holders photograph and other identification information encoded on an RFID chip.  The program was later expanded to tourists.  Also in 2006, RFID and smart card technology companies formed the Secure ID Coalition to promote the technologies for security applications.

RFID innovation will clearly continue.  So will the need to protect people, products, assets and facilities from a variety of dangers, and to document activity to meet many business and regulatory needs.  As security and regulatory pressures grow, so does the value of using RFID to provide secure, reliable identification and data collection.  This year RFID will continue to expand from access control and move out into the supply chain, giving us all more confidence in the foods we eat, the medicines we take and the brands we trust.


Chris Kelley is RFID Business Development Director of Intermec (


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