Unlocking Benefits from RFID in your Field Service Operations

Posted by Leadent Solutions on February 6, 2013

RFID – the go-to technology for everything, from wireless inventory tracking and logistics to counting casino chips — radio-frequency identification, or RFID — is now stepping up to help service businesses manage more complex equipment and maintenance operations. Computer servers that signal administrators when they’re overheating, pipes that detect deterioration, equipment that senses dangerous vibrations — new types of RFID tags can handle all those tasks, eliminating service calls and reducing human oversight.

In the past, RFID tags typically displayed a serial number and not much else. But now we have applications that can read those tags and know, ‘this is a piece of a water pipe.’ We can read the tags as they’re going down in the pipe. We know the history of the pipe: Is it damaged? Is the temperature changing? Now we can track the whole maintenance history. For many field service organisations, those are innovations with bottom-line potential.

• Inventory/Parts Tracking: Short-range RFID signals can alert a scanner to their presence, making taking inventory easier than ever. Some systems can also house information on the RFID tag about the part’s history.

• GPS Locating: Longer-range active RFID allows a worker to locate a large piece of equipment in the field — say, on a water treatment site — with a computer or handheld reader.

• Automated Maintenance: More sophisticated systems can relay information about a part’s condition, like the current temperature, back to HQ, replacing many planned maintenance calls.

Passive v Active RFID tags

RFID tags use radio signals to transmit data to a computerised reader. Typically, they’re used in inventory and parts-tracking environments, such as large warehouses. Asda, for instance, has been a trailblazer withRFID in its massive back-office systems since it was introduced over a decade ago. “Passive” RFID tags simply reflect a signal to a handheld reader at close range — similar to a bar code.

But these new “active” tags, equipped with a small battery and radio antennae, can broadcast far more information, sometimes over long distances, not only giving supervisors a way to triangulate the whereabouts of a piece of equipment, but also transmitting data about its immediate environment. For certain kinds of equipment, that can be invaluable information.

For example, we have a utilities customer with large tankering operations. When you run wires on a tanker, that’s very expensive — it has to be safe, because of the danger of a spark starting a fire. So the customer has put vibration sensors on their equipment inside the tanker. So instead of having a person checking it once a week or whatever the maintenance schedule called for, they could set up those sensors to report back to them every minute, or day, or week.

If the data signals a potential problem, a maintenance engineer can be alerted to go have a look. Otherwise, routine maintenance checks can be performed automatically, and expensive engineer visits can be saved for the times a person is really needed to perform work.

RFID 2.0

The next stage of RFID systems is twofold: Developing better protective cases to house transmitters in rough environments, and making better use of the data they collect and send.
Tags and readers have been around for a long time now, but we haven’t necessarily had a complete software solution that companies could deploy immediately. A lot of companies built their own solutions from scratch. But now we’re starting to see some packaged solutions come to the market with maybe 80% of what a company would probably want already. Watch this space.