From healthcare to mining, RFID standards keep operations on track

Used to control inventory and track items in real time in logistics, retail and transportation, radio frequency identification (RFID) and barcode technologies improve inventory management and reduce checkout times in shops.

Hospitals quickly locate equipment required for surgery to ensure it is clean, safe and ready for use. Intelligent sports balls can capture data which help players learn and improve their game, while companies in oil and gas, chemical, mining, construction and energy can enhance personnel safety, track assets and maintain equipment in harsh environments.

Suitcase with RFID tracking
With a 99.9 % accuracy reading rate, the airline industry is making use of RFID tags to help with luggage tracking

A booming market

According to Statista, the global RFID market is expected to be worth around USD 24,5 billion in 2020 with retail applications making up the greatest part. Other key areas using the technology include financial, healthcare and industrial.

How do barcodes and RFID differ?

Barcodes and RFID read and collect data and track assets and inventory, however, there are differences – the main one being that optical scanners only work with an unobstructed view of the barcode, known as a clear line of sight. A well-known example is at a checkout where products are scanned one at a time. In the case of RFID tags, when they come within a certain distance of their reader, they are activated by radio signals, which means that potentially hundreds of tags could be read per second. This is particularly useful for production lines and warehouses management where multiple items can be tracked rapidly, as well as recognized individually.

Interview with Henri Barthel

e-tech caught up with Henri Barthel, who chairs the IEC and ISO Joint Technical Committee (ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 31) which develops international standards for Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) techniques, to learn how a fundamental international standard first developed in 2005 is still being used to improve services and products in diverse industries. Barthel is also Vice President for GS1 System Integrity and Global Partnerships.

What does ISO/IEC 18000 series of standards do?

The series covers the parameters of air interface communications and is designed to make the dialogue between the reader and the tag as efficient as possible.

The series of standards addresses the interfaces at different radio frequencies. They do not specify how to build the reader or the tag. They set out the requirements for the equipment to conform with the standards, and the language to be used when organizing the dialogue between the reader and the tag.

An example would be the commands that the reader sends to the tags to make them behave a specific way, such as to allow the reading of multiple tags at the same time, which requires a very specific dialogue.

Can you give some examples of industries that are using the standard?

SC 31 develops horizontal international standards which are adopted by various industries.


For example, the tyre sector uses the technology in its simplest form, meaning the tag only contains the identifier of the item to which it is attached, to keep track of it during production. But there are other benefits of using electronic labelling. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) use it to track a tyre throughout its lifecycle using a unique identifier per tyre, but it could also be used to access additional information, such as the tyre dimension, type and quality. Normally this is engraved directly on the tyre, which can get dirty and then cannot be read, however, the RFID tag would be embedded in the tyre itself.

By using RFID tags, regulators, customs and specific types of users, such as fleet managers would be able to access other information, including if the tyre is authorized in a country, type of use, and which markets it is available in. If an ultra-high frequency (UHF) tag is embedded in the tyre, it can be read from a distance of up to 1.5 metres.

While ISO has developed a series of application standards for the RFID tagging of tyres, these application standards are based on technical standards provided by SC 31, mainly  ISO/IEC 18000-63.

Airline companies

Another example is the airline industry. Travelers who fly expect their luggage to arrive with them, but when it doesn’t, they want to be able to locate it as quickly as possible.

When it comes to handling lost luggage, while the barcode works, it can get damaged. If this happens bags may get lost in the sorting centre. Equally if there is a lot of luggage, if a barcode is not positioned so that the scanner has a clear line of sight, it won’t be read, and it will be considered as lost. But if you have an RFID tag, it will have a 99.9 % accuracy reading rate, which is much higher than the barcode.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced last year that it will deploy RFID luggage tracking, globally. This means a transition to barcoded bag tags with RFID inlays. IATA has not yet decided which coding structure to use for the tag data content, but one can say confidently that the base technology will be using the ISO/IEC 18000-63 Standard.

What’s in the pipeline?

Electronic labelling is probably one of the most important application areas for SC 31. The concept is simple, you have a barcode encoding the identification of an item. Once you scan the barcode you can access a database with further information, such as the price and article description.

More recently, industry has been looking to get rid of paper manuals for electronic products. We have a new work item based on this idea to replace paper. Instead, an electronic label would be scanned and lead to an information resource that would provide the information required by different applications for different markets.  

This is a great opportunity. It could apply to many products and categories of information. For example, a consumer of pharmaceutical products could access detailed product information such as allergy warnings or exact dosage.

There is currently no framework for manufacturers to do this. We are trying to establish a more uniform level for the creation of such applications, which would enable businesses and consumers to get the product information they need. We are working on a standard, which enables interoperability between different applications.

We have just published a new DataMatrix rectangular barcode (ISO/IEC 21471), which can be engraved onto very small medical instruments and equipment for hospital theatres and used to track them. We are also working on a similar approach for a rectangular QR code (ISO/IEC 23941).