Digital for all now

#RFID in industry: where are we at?

Econocmo 26 Jul 2016

RFID technology has been used in manufacturing for several years now. One of the pioneers in this field, sports retailer Decathlon, was behind one of the biggest deployments in the world. But there have been a number of other cases in the aeronautical, food and automotive industries.


So why implement RFID? How has it been used in industry? What are the rival technologies? How far ahead is France compared with other countries? We spoke to Jean-Christophe Lecosse, Managing Director of the CNRFID.


The Centre national de référence RFID (CNRFID) (national centre for RFID reference) was set up in 2008 at the initiative of the French government’s Directorate general for enterprises (DGE). It’s in charge of promoting the deployment of contactless technologies (RFID and NFC), developing their use and implementing nationwide initiatives.


What exactly does the CNRFID do?


We work with all the players in the contactless technology ecosystem, from chip manufacturers and integrators to users of the solutions. Where the providers are concerned, our members are mainly SMBs (around 70%), whilst the users are mainly major groups such as Carrefour, L’Oréal, Renault, Airbus, Dassault, Disney, etc. We help them define their needs, identify the added value of incorporating contactless technologies into industrial processes and draft their specifications. We also work on academic research and collaborative projects.


For a number of years, the Centre has chaired various national and international standardisation committees for promoting open interoperable solutions. Thus, since February 2016, we’ve chaired the AFNOR/CN IoT standardisation committee.


And in 2015, we became involved in one of the 9 French industrial solutions as part of the government’s “Industry of the future” project for using IoT. We implemented two working groups to promote the deployment of contactless solutions in the luxury goods and energy industries.


In a similar spirit, the CNRFID launched  Connectwave in 2015, a platform for experimenting with IoT for professional use. Connectwave is a place where people come to experiment with and understand the issues and ways of using contactless technologies. A technological and industrial showcase, Connectwave is aimed at all the people involved in the deployment of contactless solutions (from suppliers to clients), from all industry sectors (luxury, aeronautics, retail, etc.). The different uses we demonstrate cover a range of professional challenges: maintenance, industrial processes, access to places and data, traceability, customer service, etc.


Professional Connected Devices will be showcased during the Connect+ Event, an event we’re organising from 6 to 9 December 2016 at the Villepinte exhibition hall near Paris. At the very heart of smart industries, this 4-day event will showcase all the technological components and solutions that can address the challenges of IoT. Connect+ Event is part of  Convergence for the Industries of the Future and will be attended by 7,000 visitors in an exhibition space of over 1,000m².


What are the advantages of RFID technology for industry?


There are so many, which makes it difficult to list them. Without going into too much technical detail, it’s important to distinguish between two types of RFID: High Frequency (HF) and Ultra-High Frequency (UHF). Let’s look at UHF: this is technology that works at long distances (several metres) that can read a large number of tags (hundreds) simultaneously, through packaging and without a direct line of sight between object and reader. Those are the main advantages of RFID. They are useful for a number of industrial processes, such as scanning the content of a parcel without opening it, for example, or even an entire pallet full of parcels. So it can be very advantageous for tracking logistics flows as it can improve and automate traceability.


The retail sector, for example, particularly textile products, is very advanced where RFID use is concerned: Decathlon rolled out one of the world’s biggest projects in terms of deployment. Today, most of the brand’s products and all its stores are equipped with RFID. It’s also used for anti-theft devices and for conducting fast inventories and check-outs for large volumes of goods. This example combines the three main advantages of the technology: remote reading, bulk reading, and reading through packaging without direct line of sight.


But RFID is also used in a number of other industry sectors: libraries and industrial laundries have been deploying it for a long time.


=> Also on our blog: Decathlon: a sports goods chain at the cutting edge of open innovation



What are the rival technologies?


When people call us to talk about RFID, the first thing we do is convince them that the technology in itself is useless! Whilst at least two of the three advantages I mentioned earlier are highlighted, very often, optical technology (barcode, QR codes, etc.) can do the same thing.


If an industrial player doesn’t need to identify individual products but just product families, if they already have a conveyor on which they can read products one by one, RFID won’t be much use to them, because barcodes can do the job perfectly well. Rolling out RFID is expensive and our first job is to make sure the technology has added value. Otherwise, people end up very disappointed.


On the whole, we don’t like to talk about rival technologies, but complementary technologies that fulfil different purposes.


For example: video recognition. At electronic toll booths or carparks, it’s easy to implement because it doesn’t require giving our badges to all the users. But a fake car number plate costs €20, so authentication is pretty poor.  It’s much better with an RFID tag, particularly with HF contactless technologies (like credit cards, access badges, passports, etc.). In other words, each technology has its advantages and disadvantages.


Is security a concern for industry?


Naturally. But it’s important to weigh the level of security required against the cost of implementing it. Let’s look at the example of textiles: you can have a fairly low level of security because the risk of making a fake tag to bring back a T-shirt and get a refund is practically non-existent. A passport or access badge, on the other hand, require maximum security. In each case, there are solutions with varying costs and degrees of security depending on what you need.


Give us some examples of deployments?


A lot of proofs of concept  are being conducted at the moment. In the aeronautical industry, the CNRFID launched ITGDO two years ago, a programme for digitally identifying and tracking objects in the aeronautical and aerospace industries, which has received €3.5 million in funding, and includes companies such as Airbus, Air France, Safran, Thalès, Sagem and several SMBs. The aim of the programme is to incorporate RFID in various types of objects, such as containers, raw materials (combining RFID with temperature sensors, for example) and tools. This last example is a very striking one: tools can now be tracked thanks to smart tool cabinets, which can tell who has taken a tool, when it’s due back or for maintenance, and is totally automated, with no need to scan a barcode. Around a dozen distributors worldwide sell this type of equipment and demand is growing.


There are a lot of niche uses emerging: managing food products, production management, etc. In the automotive industry, for example, when a certain number of car parts are on the production line, barcode technology isn’t adequate. Even more so when the car goes to the paint shop: only RFID tags can continue to be read.


It’s also useful in the luxury goods sector: an unsightly barcode on a perfume bottle is a problem for marketing. RFID is a way of getting round this.


Can we expect an RFID revolution in the near future?


For the past ten years or so, we’ve been expecting a sort of big bang, but that’s not going to happen. There’s no “one size fits all”: RFID technologies are gradually being used to address specific issues but, as every process has different parameters (speed of scanning, type of packaging, material and shape of the objects, quantity, etc.), the technology can’t be adapted to everything. That’s the reason the CNRFID was set up, to provide assistance and advice in this area.


You also have to be aware that the devil is in the detail.  All it takes is for one of the parameters to change and technology that has already been deployed becomes even more beneficial, even revolutionary. Let’s look at Decathlon again: if a competitor decides to do the same thing tomorrow, it could take them 10 or 15 years, purely because of the differences in the supply chain. Decathlon has its own production and distribution networks, whereas a competitor would   have to work with more partners and get more players to deploy the technology before they get a return on investment.


“We tend to wait for it to be deployed sector by sector, but it’s usually use cases in niche markets. It’s not representative enough to say that an entire sector has been transformed by RFID.” 


It’s hard to give figures because studies are often based on the number of tags sold, but this indication distorts the statistics because Decathlon alone, for example, can make 50 million tags a year. An industrial, meanwhile, who only makes 50,000 tags but has very high added value, will be completely overlooked.


For IoT, it’s a different approach. It’s extremely popular and, aside from the technology itself, it can potentially transform economic models.  So you don’t approach it in the same way as a RFID project, which is more pragmatic in the way it addresses an initial problem.


How far ahead is France compared with other countries?


We’re quite far ahead: in the top 5 or 6 most advanced countries in terms of skills in all the areas required for implementing the technology. We also have an extensive network of SMBs. Concerning uses, we have some wonderful examples of uses, but we don’t necessarily communicate on them as much as other countries.


Also on our blog:

=> Exhauss: exoskeletons in the workplace fighting resistance to change

=> Foundation, digital engineering for building

=> Patrick Hoffstetter, CDO of Renault: you have to get all your staff involved in the digital transformation

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