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RFID industrial automation

RFID in industrial automation – the experience of a Ukrainian integrator

We are pleased to present a new interview with Serhii Salata, co-founder and RFID specialist of Smart Card Ukraine (ARDIX) conducted by Oleksandr Pupena, associated professor of the department of automation control, National university of food technologies, member I4U.

Oleksandr Pupena: Good afternoon, Sergii! Since I come from an industrial automation background, I am interested in questions that are somehow related to industrial automation. Sergii, could you tell us a few words about what your organization does?

I am a co-founder of Smart Card Ukraine, and we are 10 years old this year. Our company specializes in Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID) and various contactless technologies. We have several areas of work. We produce some types of identifiers, various smart cards, silicone bracelets, RFID tags for laundry. This is the production part. We are also importers of various RFID equipment, ranging from small chips and tags to identification equipment: readers, antennas, printers for printing documents and certificates. And the third part is the integration system itself. Based on this equipment, chips, and our software, we make automation systems. This is our company – with three directions, combining the idea of RFID and automation based on them.

Oleksandr Pupena: Do you produce the chips themselves or do you carry out the following stages?

Let me clarify: there are chips that may already have an integrated antenna, or there may be chips to which an antenna is welded. The chip with the antenna is called an inlay and there is a tag with the antenna in some form factor, it can be a sticker or a tag in a plastic case. We take the inlay and use it to make a specific tag, a physical identifier that has not just physical characteristics for reading, but is already designed to solve a specific identification task.

Oleksandr Pupena: Let’s immediately classify the related technologies that your company is engaged in.

I like this question because one of our missions is to promote technology. Anything that transmits information via radio waves is our speciality.

RFID is a general concept that includes different technologies that operate at different frequencies. RFID means identification, meaning that the identifier must be able to tell us who it is, it must have a unique number. If we’re talking about a T-shirt that just beeps on the way out, these are so-called “dumb tags”. For example, if you look at the tags we see in stores, they are sold in rolls by the thousands. The design is simple, the tag works like a mirror. The frame emits an electromagnetic wave, the tag reflects it, and this indicates that some tag is in this area, but not a specific one, but any tag.

When we talk about an RFID tag, the ID appears when the emitter receives back information about what kind of tag it is. If someone takes out an item without authorisation, we can know what specific item they are taking out, for example, a blue T-shirt, size L.

Oleksandr Pupena: So the RFID tag is configured to reflect waves of a specific length?

Yes, they are classified by frequency.

There is the Low Frequency (LF) band, which is mostly old access control systems. This is a low-frequency band of 125 kHz, it is not very secure, one of the basic old technologies.

Then there is High Frequency (HF), 13.56 MHz, and this is a more interesting range, which includes NFC technology and everything related to it. That is, all Apple Pay, Android Pay, these are all NFC tags that you can scan, an access card, or some kind of advertising materials. NFC operates at a frequency of 1356 MHz. There are other sub-technologies.

The next band is UHF (Ultra High Frequency). The operating range is 865-868 MHz in Europe, which includes Ukraine.

It should be added that each frequency, each technology, has its own reading range. The next frequency we work in is 2.4 GHz. This is everything related to beacons, real-time positioning and active tags.

Each frequency and technology is determined by the reading range, it’s not a direct correlation, but the higher the frequency, the greater the reading range.

If we are talking about LF, the most basic, then the reading range, depending on the size of the antenna, will be about a metre. The same goes for HF, also about a metre. But there is one exception – NFC technology, where the standards stipulate that reading can take place at a distance of up to 10 cm. This is done to ensure that this signal is not intercepted, since the technology is used for payments, for secure identification at the entrance, when paying, so the standard stipulates that it can only be read at a distance of 10 cm. This depends on many factors, including the size of the antenna in the reader, but in fact, the standard specifies from 1 mm to 10 cm.

If we are talking about 2.4 GHz, the reading range of active RFID tags, or beacon, or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. It’s already tens of metres, 30-40-50 metres maybe. BLE is a Bluetooth technology that has always been very energy-consuming and it was unprofitable for identifiers, because each identifier required very large batteries. Therefore, we developed a technology based on Bluetooth that consumes less.

Keys also have RFID tags, usually either HF or LF. Now everyone is switching from LF to HF, because HF is already a secure technology, it has encryption, additional memory blocks that can be encrypted, information can be written to the internal memory of the chip itself, and this is considered a fairly secure identifier. In HF technology itself, there are many classes of chips that are considered super secure.

As for UHF, it is a very interesting technology, and it is probably the most relevant technology in this interview. I personally like it because it is most often used in automation. It has a reading range from a few centimetres to 20 metres, and now there are super tags that can read up to 40 metres. Its feature is that we can read a very large number of chips at a short distance at the same time, the reading speed is about 100 tags per second.

For example, you have a box with some glasses or lenses, a real case. There are a thousand of these lenses in the box. It would take a lot of time to scan each barcode, and there would be a lot of errors. In the case of UHF, you take a special blaster reader, either handheld or stationary, and in about a minute you have the result.

Oleksandr Pupena: Is this the only technology that allows this?

Let me tell you the difference. NFC doesn’t allow it because it has such a thing as anti-collision. This is done precisely to ensure that only one tag is read at a time, so that when a payment is made, no one substitutes their reader and two cards at the same time, and this collision with a write-off does not occur. The technology standard includes this anti-collision tool.

LF can read several, but it’s still not so massive. BLE, beacon can be read simultaneously, but the purpose is completely different, to see how objects move. And when we talk about UHF, it’s about recording a large amount of data at high speed.

I also touched on one more thing in the classification: HF, LF, and UHF are passive tags, they have absolutely no power source, they can work, conditionally, forever. Therefore, their cost is very low. The technology works in such a way that the capacitor is charged by the electromagnetic field emitted by the reader.

BLE tags are active tags, they need to be recharged or replaced with batteries.

If we talk about NFC, it is also a very interesting data transfer technology, but we also call the tags that. I like the comparison with LF. LF is a single identifier, a ten-digit number that is embedded in the chip and only transmits it to the reader. And when we talk about NFC, there is a whole structure. There is an ID, internal memory, which is divided into blocks and sectors. You can write down a specific number and put it in a specific block and then read what you need to read. This is a security function, because there is a structure and you can close and open all these cells with foam, and this is a whole system.

At the basic level, there is a reader, a generator of electromagnetic waves, depending on the technology chosen, the reader itself generates this electromagnetic field at a certain frequency. The antenna of the chip picks up this electromagnetic field, it charges the capacitor, the capacitor gives out the information that was requested from its internal memory, if we are talking about LF, it is just a number, it has no options, “Who are you? – I am Sergiy”, no more information. If we are talking about more complex technologies such as NFC, UHF, and so on, we can already request more specific information, for example, the reader asks who you are, and I can give it a Unique ID (UID), which is always open.

Oleksandr Pupena: Is this ID unique in the world?

Different technologies use LF technology in different ways and say that there are already duplicates, because they have generated so many billions of these tags that there may already be duplicates. That’s why serious companies, when they issue chips, write down to which client and which range they have issued. Yes, it should be unique, but if we are talking about the chaotic issuance of tags, as some countries do, there is a chance that it can be repeated.

Companies that do this systematically, they control it, they unite in an association, like the NFC Forum, for example. They control, write standards, and monitor compliance with these standards. But again, RFID is a kind of plasticine, you can use it however you want.

There is also a Transponder ID (TID), the difference is that this TID contains the identifier of the manufacturer, the batch, that is, it is a kind of conditional barcode of a particular manufacturer and it is unchangeable.

Back to the process, the UID is read, then the reader can ask for some specific information, for example, a verification code, the tag responds – and you have a pin, the system must respond – yes, the pin is this, checks, matches, opens a certain cell and gets the verification code from there. This is how the process looks like, so it all happens very quickly, imperceptibly to the user.

Our task is to digitalize some objects, people, animals, and processes.

I like the phrase that we are in the business of connecting objects with the digital world.

Oleksandr Pupena: I’ve read that the emergence of the Internet of Things is linked to RFID, which is all you’re talking about – the ancestors of the Internet of Things, the thing gets into the virtual world.

Our task is to digitalize some objects, people, animals, and processes.

UHF is most often used in industrial automation. There are a lot of different interfaces, and they are specifically designed for industrial automation. UHF technology in the US was promoted and funded by Walmart and the US Department of Defence, and it was critical for them to find a cheap identifier that would provide super high accuracy. UHF came from there, from the needs of a company where there are many units of something, and they need to keep track of it all.

Oleksandr Pupena: If this technology is intended for automation, can we focus on UHF?

Yes, of course. There are four types of readers for UHF. The most basic, simple for the user, in the form of a smartphone with an antenna, i.e. a manual data collection terminal. There are also readers with an integrated antenna. This is the UHF module itself with a board to which the antenna is already attached, usually an aluminium plate. You can see them in Kyiv, and it’s very popular in big cities to make parking systems using UHF. It’s a plastic box that hangs above the barrier, a car drives up, reads the tag from the windscreen, identifies it as its own, and opens it.

There are readers with remote antennas, which are more industrial. This is a box with various outputs and interfaces, to which antennas are connected through the outputs. That is, we put one box, for example, with four antenna outputs and hang an antenna, for example, on a conveyor in one place, a duplicate antenna on a conveyor in another place, and so on, and place the antennas on identification points.

Each antenna and tag has a directional pattern, the maximum distance is up to 20 metres, up to 40 metres is the latest development. In real projects, from one to seven metres is most often used, which is what is really needed. Few places need 40 metres, except maybe for wagons. So you have this reader, to which antennas are connected, and the reader can have RS-232 and Ethernet outputs. The number of antennas can be from one antenna to 32 or more, but it reads in turn, that is, it switches, visually it looks like you are reading all the antennas at the same time, but you just set the range with which it switches the antenna channels.

Everything that falls into the directional diagram is read. It can be read even through radio-transparent obstacles: wood, glass, even a concrete wall, that is, if it is not solid metal and not a giant wall with an aquarium, it will read.

These readers have the advantage that, firstly, they come with Linux inside, so you can write your own little script and this box with antennas can be used as a separate automation unit.

The special thing about these readers is that they still have dry contacts, and you can connect peripherals to them, such as relays, and we use these readers to automate elevators. We can use RFID to make completely unattended weighbridges, when a tag is hung on the windscreen, all the information is entered into the system, a vehicle with grain arrives at the elevator, its tag is read, the barrier is raised automatically, without any paperwork, it follows the route at traffic lights, is weighed automatically, and the scoreboard can tell it how to get better. RFID in this case allows for very cool automation without people at all.

The reader can be a separate automation unit, and you can connect peripherals to it, and you can also write some scripts into it to make all this happen inside, such a special computer is usually running Linux.

Antennas, like tags, also have a lot of varieties. Previously, the antenna was quite thick and of a certain shape, like a square antenna, but now they are made in very interesting shapes. For example, an antenna as thick as a piece of paper, which means it can even be used to keep track of some specific documents, an antenna like a lanyard, which is great for food counters with some kind of things, so you don’t have a specific area where you need to read, you have an uneven area, and you can make any shape with this antenna and set it a unique pattern that will read only the shape you need.

Oleksandr Pupena: What about conflicts, several tags in the area of activity, or all of them in turn?

Yes, the thing about the technology is that we read all the tags at the same time. The technology allows for a “see it once and forget it” approach, so the next time it appears, within a certain time frame, for example, up to 5 minutes, it will not be recorded, which is why it is necessary – if you put a pallet of goods in a car, and you need to understand that it has entered the car and then did not interfere. It’s enough to read it once, and within 5 minutes we cut off this data.

Recording can also be done in bulk. If you need to record one tag, you need to isolate it or reduce the power of the reader so that you put the tag to the reader and know that it is the only one in the zone. If you have a thousand tags in front of the readers and you decide to overwrite one, then all of them that are in the range will be overwritten.

We had an interesting case when we counted concrete slabs during construction. We had to understand at what point in time each element of the building was put in place, so when we poured concrete into an element, we threw a mark there and noted that the second floor had been poured. Nowadays, the word traceability is popular in production automation, and it’s not just for food products, where it’s very important to know what the chicken ate, to which customer it was sold, but it’s also relevant to the same construction: at what shift the slab was poured, according to what recipe, how the technology was maintained or not, to which contractor it was shipped, when it was delivered, if in 20 years, 100 years this building collapses, we can track all this.

Oleksandr Pupena: It seems to be a hot topic for all industries nowadays. As far as I understand it, it is very relevant for pharmaceuticals, because pharmaceuticals should be controlled as much as possible. There is talk of RFID in Ukraine, and it may be used somewhere, but it does not reach the level of packaging.

It’s a very interesting question, because now a new era of RFID is emerging, with additional sensors. We have not implemented any of these yet, but we have already tested them. When you have a tag, it can also have a moisture and temperature sensor and be illuminated. One of the Ukrainian telecoms operators asked if it was possible to make it possible for us to climb into a well with cables and find out where a cable is located in a bundle of a hundred cables. There are labels that allow you to select a specific number, read all of them, but the one you need is highlighted with a light bulb. The power should be enough to make the LED light up.

Again, it’s true that the price evolution is high at first, but now it will fall. This goes back to what you said about packaging and pharmaceuticals. With COVID-19, there is a problem that there are very strict rules for the use and storage of packaging, and it’s the same with food – those who produce want to make sure that it is stored in the right conditions when the product reaches its final destination, otherwise it becomes unusable.

Oleksandr Pupena: When you read an RFID tag, you only see an instantaneous reading, which means that the refrigerated trucks that carry these products must read the tags at regular intervals. This tag is passive, it cannot write history itself in the process.

If we’re talking about passive tags, then yes, they really need to be under the supervision of these readers, and they need to be in their range all the time.

Oleksandr Pupena: Tell us a couple of cases that your company is currently implementing in Ukraine and beyond. One of the cases is smart packaging, as I understand it.

I’ll tell you where it works now. It works for quite expensive products, and why they need it: packaging manufacturers come to us and say we can’t surprise our customers with anything any more, there are so many different types of printing, and we need something new. RFID is used for two purposes in packaging: the first is marketing, because it brings the item to life, and we’re coming back to NFC here because it’s a more massive technology. It’s marketing because you can get direct access to the customer, meaning that the manufacturer of something can get its user to like it on Facebook or Instagram, or use this chip to get direct feedback. This way, you can get direct access to the end customer and communicate with them. The second story, no less interesting, is brand protection. If you buy expensive wine for five thousand dollars, how do you confirm its authenticity? With the help of RFID. Here’s an example: there are tags that protect the integrity of the tag, a tendril that is tied to the tag, a part of the antenna, and it is specially made of a material that cracks when you handle it with small hands. And when you unwind it or remove the cork, the tendril breaks and one bit is lost, and you can see that one bit is missing when you read it. So you can preserve the integrity and also confirm the authenticity. Nowadays, there are Brand Protection technologies, when there is a database of tag numbers in the cloud and a number is written inside the tag according to the One-time-password principle. This technology allows you to 100% confirm the authenticity of the product.

If we are talking about packaging, we have to go back to NFC technology, because everyone has it in their smartphone.

What UHF can be used for in packaging is for accounting. For example, I’ll tell you a real-life case. There are distributors of perfumery products, and it is important for them to understand the expiry date of the packaging, the manufacturer, and how it is stored in the warehouse. The companies that sell these cosmetics have very large volumes, it is very difficult for them to do all this, they have it all quite well organised using barcodes, but now the fight is for milliseconds and if you put a fresher product on the counter somewhere, that’s it, the previous batch is gone, the expiry date has passed. You need to be able to manage this, and that’s why it’s also important for packaging, for example, in cosmetics, they need to be able to manage their stocks and it’s much more difficult with a barcode, but with RFID it’s easier.

Oleksandr Pupena: In this case, we are talking about distributors, but it should be the responsibility of the manufacturer, right?

This is where it’s going, and I’ll give you an example from the clothing industry, where there are probably no companies that don’t use it anymore. One of our Fashion retale distributors called us for a meeting, saying that we have a problem: it takes a lot of time to receive goods, to take inventory, we want to implement RFID, we have heard that there is such a system. We told them what was going on, then turned on the reader and said, “Let’s check it out, because there are a lot of things with tags. We turn on the reader and the whole store is RFID, and our users don’t even know about it and don’t use it.

And they are already using RFID in their production and supply chains. It has already made a lot of sense to them, and COVID-19 has contributed to this even more.

Oleksandr Pupena: Tell us about cases that are close to industrial automation.

Firstly, it is the accounting of machines, starting with the movement of transport around the enterprise, no matter whether it is an elevator or a factory. We need to be able to manage this flow so that machines do not stand idle, are loaded when needed, with what is needed, without fraud.

Automation of the process of inventory of fixed assets and anything else is most popular now. This is a big problem for large companies that have a lot of assets and don’t know where everything is. For example, some IT equipment that is purchased just like in a black hole and no one can know where it is, many IT companies where equipment is transferred back and forth, they need to control its movement, everything that concerns companies that have different offices around the country, that is, they usually have a formal inventory. No one knows the real situation and this inventory process reveals a lot of interesting stories at its first stage and in the future increases the speed of inventory by 20 to 50 times.

If we are talking about the fact that we need to control the takeaway, that there are some stories where there may be unauthorised takeaways, or whether there are some people who could change components, engage in schemes that are not useful for the company, where there is an opportunity to fake this qr code.

When it comes to production, where there are stages, for example, various meat processing plants and food manufacturers immediately come to mind. One example to illustrate this is the process of making sausages and there are stages, such as cooling, smoking, and there is a trolley on which sausages are hung and it has to go through a certain cycle. If this cycle goes wrong, they lose the entire batch. We made a solution where we put an RFID tag on each trolley and a reader above each camera. This way, we knew that the recipe for making a certain type of sausage was sewn into the tag and communicated with the control system so that we knew at what stage the trolley was, how long it had been there and whether it was time to move it.

Oleksandr Pupena: So the whole history, the recipe, is recorded in the tag?

It records the card identifier, that is, we have the identifier, and he has a card with the recipe, number, date, and so on.

It was a similar story with the vats where the dough was kneaded for different recipes, and we had to understand at what stage they were, how long it was there. This is in Dnipro, where they have a very modern system. We only supplied the equipment there, they have a fully automated system for producing raw materials for baking these buns.

When we talk about some product stories where we need to count the number of these products, the biggest part of the cost in such projects is the cost of the tag. We know that there will be millions of tags, so the project will consist of 90% of the cost of tags. If we’re talking about process automation projects, then the cost is much lower, because our tags are stationary – we hang 100, 1000 of them together and that’s it. That’s why I like inventory automation projects, because once you’ve done it, you use it for life, and it’s the same with process automation, where we have, for example, a reader on a car, on a traverse that drives around the enterprise, it works really well on such things.

We are often asked about occupational health and safety when they need to know that each of the elements responsible for occupational health and safety is in place.

Logistics is also a problem, wherever there are ramps, there are problems with accounting, whether it is for goods by the piece, or boxes, or pallets.

We had an interesting case at a meat processing plant, where at each stage of the pig carcass, the half-carcasses were weighed after each processing, and we had to understand at what stage how much weight was lost and how much was actually gained. Nowadays, there are such euro hooks that there is even a special hole for an RFID tag, it is already a standard. So the hook moves a half-carcass, stops at a stage, the reader reads and records this information, moves on, another stage – reads and records again, and so on.

Various laundries and dry cleaners, companies that rent out clothes are being automated very nicely, which is a very popular service now. Everything related to textiles, in general, I think RFID should be a standard. Now we are getting to the point where grocery retail is very active, and they want to make automated stores in the future, where there will be cash registers and even no barcodes, you just come and read everything, and we are moving towards that.

We are often asked about occupational health and safety when they need to know that each of the elements responsible for occupational health and safety is in place. For example, there is a machine in the process of making cigarettes, they have dangerous parts of the equipment that can damage fingers and often ask to confirm that all these elements of labour protection are in place. So you’re assembling a machine like this, and you need to know that all the elements are in place, and you use RFID to make sure that they are.

We once had a startup, an internal startup, when we made RFID-based timing systems for marathons and half-marathons, developed such a system, held one bike race and installed an antenna in the form of such rubber mats. We were sitting there, making sure that everything was being read correctly, and then a BMW passed through these antennas and the list was displayed. That is, the car was just driving, it had some parts under the hood, and we just saw it all, a large number of unknown tags and it was clear that it was all from the car, that is, in the automotive industry, it is all at a very high level.

It’s interesting that companies in Ukraine that manufacture products for machine-building companies in Europe also use RFID, but they don’t know what it is. Later, when we implement this project for them, they say that they have similar tags for Jaguars.

Also, containers, this is also accounting, but this is a separate type, Returnable Transport Item (RTI), when everything related to containers, pallets, boxes, cartons, various kegs, it is also problematic to count. It is often stolen, lost, broken, and you need to count the life cycle, so RFID is also very often used here.

Oleksandr Pupena: Is it possible to determine the position of an RFID tag? Are they used for this purpose?

Yes, there are special readers with antennas, they have a very interesting design, there is a reader and a certain number of antennas connected to the reader, it can be 13 or 52. When, for example, a pallet is passing and we need to understand its direction of movement, there are three zones with 4 antennas for each zone. The pole moves and we understand where it is by the level of the returning signal. In order to understand that the stick has passed from point A to point B, zones 1, 2, 3 need to be triggered. If we are talking about other types, for example, where there are 52 of these antennas, it can do positioning with an accuracy of half a metre without interference, but this is a limited area in which it can show where everything is. How it is used is again in fashion retail, when you can see the whole store on the shelves.

There is another technology that we have not talked about at all, but which is very promising now, real-time positioning technology, called Real time location System (RTLS), usually based on BLE technology. This is a technology that we are also implementing and is popular in Ukraine. When you can track in real time where employees are going, how goods and production units are moving, in a large enterprise.

Oleksandr Pupena: We haven’t discussed active tags yet.

They are not cheap, on average, a tag costs about $30-35, and the identification itself must already be in several places. Locators cost $500-700, and the level of accuracy is up to a few centimetres. We have signed a contract and are now implementing Finnish equipment from Quuppa on exclusive terms, as they have developed a BLE-based positioning technology with an accuracy of 10 cm.

Oleksandr Pupena: I heard a story that there are projects in mines where, in order to know where a worker is, it’s not even about the tag itself, it’s a complex sensor with an antenna that measures several parameters.

There is also a technology that works on BLE, which does not provide very high accuracy, but its advantage is that it does not require connecting communications to each locator. If you imagine a mine that is 5 km long, you need to lay another cable there and ensure that it is intact and not interrupted. There is a VPRs technology, where you attach beacons with an additional battery along the mine and these beacons are interconnected, a mesh system is built, the range is about 30 metres.

In order for the mesh system to work smoothly, the mine is a very long distance, a rather narrow place, and you need to hang locators every 10 metres to make it work properly.

When I told people who were going to implement mesh in mines, they were interested because the cost of laying cables and providing communication in general is simply a doubling of the system’s budget.

Oleksandr Pupena: Can these sensors be modified, can any additional sensors be connected to them to get additional data?

Third-party sensors are theoretically possible, but as a rule, they already come in a certain housing, you choose which sensors you want to add, for example, dust, humidity, temperature. There was even an interesting request to find out whether a miner had a helmet on or had taken it off, which means that we need some kind of accelerometer to understand whether he is moving or has fallen off.

Oleksandr Pupena: How often does the power supply need to be changed, as I understand it, there is a fairly intensive exchange?

If it is real-time, then depending on the battery, it will last for about six months at most. And if we’re talking about mesh systems, it can be even longer.

Oleksandr Pupena: Thank you, that’s a lot of new information!

Thank you for your interest in this topic!

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