Radio Frequency Identification RFID is the reading of information on small devices using radio frequencies or thereabouts. It largely avoids the problems of human error and cost, of misorientation, obscuration and needing to read many at a time that plague barcodes, phosphor dots, print and other alternatives in the postal and courier service. It is an enabling technology of incredibly broad applicability. That is why RFID is already used in the postal and courier service for secure access by people to vehicles and secure areas, secure access of vehicles to yards, location of parcels, conveyances, trailers and much more besides. RFID monitors the performance of the letter post, matches letters to postal boxes to prevent errors and records when and how much a sensitive package has been overheated in transit. In Sweden it is the basis of smart packages that record time of tampering and theft and leads to arrests.
Potential market for RFID
The potential market for RFID in the postal and courier service is second only to that for the retail supply chain as shown below.
Table 1 Potential global market in billions of RFID tags yearly
New capability, new services become possible
RFID can facilitate the perfect product recall and postal companies are fitting RFID labels on cases and pallets of consumer packaged goods at the behest of Wal-Mart and other leading retailers, because it increases availability and thus sales and reduces costs, valued at billions of dollars yearly for that industry. The same is being done for the US Military because the faster, more transparent supply chain improves operational capability. RFID is so crucial to the future of courier and postal services that UPS has invested in four RFID companies just to be first to see the future.
Table 2 Territorial split of dollar spend on RFID tags and systems for postal and courier services in 2016
Why RFID is now the hot topic in this sector
RFID is an idea whose time has come in postal, courier and high volume light logistics as shown below, which gives the evolution of cost-effective applications of RFID.
Source: ASK and IDTechEx
There are many reasons for this but the primary ones are that
- Appropriate ISO global specifications are now available for very high volume RFID tagging of individual items
- Mandates from retailers are creating a yearly demand for billions of pallet/ case RFID tags (ultimately about 40 billion yearly), reducing the cost of both RFID tags and systems of interest to postal and courier services for similar applications. These use the license free but previously relatively unproven UHF frequency band. This is around 900 MHz, the precise frequency depending on legislature. Of the order of 500 million are being delivered on goods sent to retailers in 2006, this being four times the number of UHF RFID tags delivered to all applications in the previous 60 years. Tag price has dropped to 15 cents or so and 5 cents is promised when billions are bought yearly in about two years.
- At the most used RFID frequency of HF (13.56 MHz), there is now booming usage in libraries, laundries, toys, tickets, cards and many other applications. This has led to value engineering, automation and volume production with prices of RFID tags and systems tumbling down and one billion HF RFID labels delivered in 60 years but the next billion HF RFID labels will be delivered in under two years. Tag price reductions are in prospect here too. Indeed, this frequency is low enough for printed transistor circuits to be an option in 2007 and in mass use as labels by 2015 . These replace the silicon chip, promising one cent price or less for complete RFID labels and eventually (after 2016?) direct printing onto items, just like barcodes today.
- Several companies (Miyake, DAG Systems, SUBTROPIC, Tagsense, UPM Rafsec) now offer or facilitate passive HF tags and systems that work at two to ten meters range and are usually more tolerant of water and metal than UHF, previously the only option for batteryless ie "passive" RFID at these ranges. Using its new HF system based on new Schreiner RFID labels, Intermec even reads metal cases at up to one meter when obscured by other metal cases. Only one year ago, those teaching RFID would say that HF tags, while being by far the most popular type, with over 55% of the market by value, could never work above one meter range and they only achieve one meter in a relatively unimpeded environment.
- For longer ranges (10 meters to two kilometers), tags with batteries are needed and here there is an advance from large devices with large batteries to ones with coin batteries and even many with printed batteries where the RFID tag takes the form of a label that may even act as a recorder of temperature, humidity etc at low cost. There are also new ways of locating things using beams with these active tags and ways of incorporating WiFi, ZigBee, Bluetooth, GPS or GSM for location and communication.
- Postal sorting machinery, fork lifts and other equipment is now increasingly available in RFID enabled form.
Examples of RFID labels suitable for item level tagging of even small items are shown below. In the centre is a UHF label from UPM Rafsec and on the right is an HF tag from TagSys. Clearly the electronic postage stamp is on its way.
Benchmarking the postal/courier use of RFID with other sectors
Benchmarking postal adoption of RFID with that for similar uses in other industries shows scope for postal and courier services to catch up in several instances. For example, the Consumer Packaged Goods CPG and industrial laundry sectors are ahead of postal/ courier in using RFID on high volume items. The healthcare profession is ahead of postal/ courier in using RFID badges and wristbands, some of which can even record incidents and/or locate staff. Eight airports now RFID label baggage for reasons of security, cost reduction and better use of constrained space - lessons here too.
The global market for RFID systems, including tags, in this sector will grow extremely rapidly to be $3 billion in 2016.
Demand may be much larger if current efforts to tag individual items gain widespread acceptance. In due course, over one trillion postal items will be tagged yearly, making this the second largest application of RFID in the world after the retail supply chain. That may occur around 2020 but much more will happen just in the next few years. Saudi Post and the electronics giants in Korea are among the great innovators in this area. Within Deutsche Post, another RFID innovator, DHL has done successful trials of RFID labelling individual items to improve service and reduce cost and has tested market prices against the possibility of tagging all its one billion items yearly. This is the stuff of competitive advantage.
Active vs passive
Today, the percentage of tags by value that are active (ie with a battery to increase range or manage sensors or encryption)) is around 20%. In the postal and courier service the percentage by value is higher because most of the initial work is done on vehicles, trailers and conveyances but that will change. As the really high volume tagging of postal items commences, the percentage of spend on active tags in the postal and courier service will drop to a figure below the average for all RFID. Indeed, the new passive tags with enhanced performance, notably improved range, will take market share from active tags in existing applications. Nonetheless, the market for active tags in the postal and courier service will continue to rise. It will remain a worthwhile and profitable activity for suppliers.
Many new products from world class suppliers
There has been a sharp increase in highly competent suppliers of software, hardware, tags, systems, systems integration, RFID enabled equipment etc that are offering exciting new capability in the sector. They include Microsoft, Symbol Technologies Wincor Nixdorf, Neopost, GATS, Lyngsoe Systems, Lijnco, CODEplus, WINN Solutions, Denstron, Texas Instruments, KSW Microtec, Identec, Savi Technology, CSC, Trenstar, ID Systems, ASK, NBG ID, Hala Supply Chain Services, EM Microelectronic, Trimex International, Escort Memory Systems, ECO Co, Intermec, UPM Rafsec, SamSys, Hi-G-Tek, NCR, Avonwood, Cypak, Avery Dennison, Alien Technology, FKI Logistex and Baumer Ident. In East Asia, many postal organisations are taking an ambitious holistic view of the RFID enabled organisation. They are prepared to change working practices radically to optimise use of new technologies such as RFID. They will invest heavily.
New report and key conference
Those in the postal and courier services and those supplying them will now ignore RFID at their peril. What do the Koreans mean by Ubiquitous Sensor Networks and why the large government backing for that program? What do East Asian businesses mean when they plan a holistic view of RFID in the postal service? These and many other opportunities, successes and failures are aired in the new report RFID for Postal and Courier Services 2006-2016. It includes 30 new case studies involving most of the above suppliers. The world's largest conference on the subject of RFID smart labels is the forthcoming Smart Labels USA.