Discovery Guides Areas


The ABCs of RFID
(Released June 2007)

  by Marianne Stanczak  


Key Citations



The Many Uses of RFID


prescription with RFID tag
Technical difficulties aside, RFID technology is used in a variety of industries for inventorying, making for efficient, cost-effective and sometimes surprising results. WalMart is the company that got everything started by making its suppliers use RFID tags. In the noncommercial sector, the Department of Defense (DOD) had a hand in the early stages of RFID technology. Libraries are also a big contender, having used the technology since 1999. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer uses RFID tags on their products, in one case on "every unit of one popular drug sold in the U.S."4

Most RFID technology is currently used in the packaging industry. The shipping newcomer DHL International GmbH plans to "affix a RFID tag on every package it ships by 2015" to increase efficiency and reduce costs.5

But shipping and packaging are not the only uses for RFID. Many state use RFID on their toll roads so motorists who frequent the routes do not have to stop to be charged. Similarly, there is something called an "e-Plate," which is an electronic RFID-containing license plate. It is an active system in which the plate contains a battery, which in this case can last ten years.

shopping card with RFID
Another popular, albeit largely underused, application is for grocery shopping. In the ideal scenario all items in a store, as well as shopping carts and baskets, will contain an RFID tag. A shopper may then leave without waiting in long lines because all items will have been scanned/read simultaneously. And since Visa, Mastercard and American Express "are expected to require more than 4.5 bn RFID cards,"6 all items can then simply be put on the consumers' RFID'd credit card. Building on to the grocery-shopping scenario, once the items are at home, RFID-containing refrigerators will be able to tell you when food is about to expire since, of course, all food items will contain an RFID tag. Along the same line of thinking, there may even be washing machines that, by reading the RFID-tagged clothing items, will automatically know at which settings to wash the clothes.

Safety and security are other main functions of RFID. Medical facilities, such as Brampton Civic Hospital in Ontario, Canada, use RFID in their "child wander-protection" devices to alert cellular phones or other electronic devices when a child leaves a "designated area."7

The US recently began embedding RFID devices into "e-passports," so that who apply after October 26, 2006 have or will have an e-passport. Safety features include a digital photo and an electronic seal. In addition, a closed passport will be inaccessible to an RFID reader due to metal fibers in the passport's cover that disrupt the radio wave transmission.8

electronic passport with chip

The Department of Homeland Security may use RFID technology as a form of border patrol, scanning immigrants with RFID-embedded visas. Like a monitoring bracelet a person sentenced to house arrest must wear, some RFID devices can be worn by prisoners that allow their movement throughout a penal institution to be monitored.

In the medical field, RFID may be used to avoid malpractice - surgical gauze and sponges may be tagged and subsequently a patient will be scanned before they are closed up to ensure no sponge/gauze is left behind. Blood, drugs, even in-vitro fertilization materials can be tagged in order to avoid costly, even deadly, mix-ups or, in the case of pharmaceuticals, counterfeiting.

Another large area for the usage of RFID technology is the library system. RFID technology, used since 1999 in libraries, allows for easier inventory control, customer self check out and theft control. As of 2006, about 2% of all U.S. and 8% of worldwide libraries use RFID technology. The Prairie Trails Public Library in Illinois is the "first known totally wireless RFID system in a U.S. Library."9

picture of library
Library RFID Management System

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