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Part Two: Q&A with Justin Patton, Auburn University RFID Lab on Temperature Tracking

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Below is part two of our conversation with Justin Patton, director of the Auburn University RFID Lab, where he shared his thoughts on the evolution of RFID technology beyond asset management and tracking, including a closer look at how it can be used for temperature monitoring.
 
Q: Which application of RFID temperature tracking is most popular at the moment?

Justin: Mainly non-food-related items. There are some real challenges to getting sensor RFID tags on all foods. There are basically three issues. One issue is the technology itself. Food products tend to have high water content and RFID sometimes has challenges reading efficiently when there’s a lot of water in the environment. So it’s much harder to tag a steak than it is to tag a sweater. So there’s the technology challenge.
 
The second challenge is the business case. Let me put it this way, if I’m selling a sweater for $80 and I’m going to put an RFID tag on it, my margin may be 20-30%. I can afford to put an RFID tag on it without losing too much of my profit. A lot of food products, however, are low cost and there is very low margin. A lot of things that you buy in the grocery store are $1 or $2 or $3, especially with produce and vegetables. So they have very little margin to cover the cost of the tag. So that makes it harder to cost justify the RFID tag.
 
The final challenge has to do with standardization. Essentially we are capturing more data with these temperature loggers than we normally would with just an RFID tag without temperature loggers. In the past, there was a lack of standardization where one manufacturer would have their particular temperature tags but you had to use their equipment to read their tags. And then another person would have a separate set of equipment to read their tags. So if I’m a grocery store and I’m receiving items from 50 different suppliers, then they would all have to buy readers from different companies. There were just real compatibility problems. It’s been a real problem getting going because of a lack of standardization in the past. But we’ve finally got around that in the past year or two.
 
Q: Who’s helping get around the standardization issues?
 
Justin: There are some standards now. For instance, there’s a Class Three standard in the ultra-high-frequency (UHF) RFID space for how you store and transfer data for temperature sensor tags which opens up a lot of opportunities that we did not have in the past. It’s administered by the GS1 standards body.

Q: How far along is the manufacturing implementation of temperature RFID?

Justin: Some companies are doing that now. I mentioned the industrial adhesives for temperature monitoring. That’s a very common use case. And then there is tracking of assets as parts go through the deep cleaning process in a factory. A lot of elements go through a deep-cleaning process with high heat and lots of heavy water spray or ovens or whatever. You need to be sure they are hitting their temperature thresholds.

Q: Is passive scanning of these temperature monitoring RFID tags important?

Justin: It is for both types of applications. In many of these use cases, it’s not like you can pick up and scan it with handheld scanner. With constant, passive scanning, item data will automatically be logged.  It’s especially important when you’re dealing with items that are temperature sensitive because they are in a high heat or some other harsh environment. It’s significant with foodstuffs, too. For example, if I want to check the temperature on a pallet of turkeys, I don’t want to have the break that pallet apart and dig down in there with a handheld scanner for the ones that are underneath because then all the rest of them are getting warm. If I could passively scan them all, then that’s much better for everybody.
 
And you can add smart knowledge to your applications, too. Let’s say your items are in a facility and they’re supposed to be in the refrigerated area most of the time. But then the item comes out occasionally and gets moved over to another space. So if I have temperature tracking, I could look at this item and see that for a couple of hours it was 32 degrees and then it went up to 54 degrees for a few hours and you don’t know why. Did the freezer get shut off or did someone move it out and where did they move it? You know, why did they do that? With passive scanners, you can also track the location and compare that back with the temperature history. Then you can say this one went out of temp because someone took it out of the area or put it in the wrong area and left it there for two hours and then at 4:15 pm they picked it up and put it back in. You can start telling the rest of the story beyond just what happened temperature wise.
 
That makes sense. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Justin.

Justin: You’re welcome.

In case you missed it last week, click here to see the first half of this conversation.

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