The go-to technology for everything from wireless inventory tracking and logistics to counting casino chips — radio-frequency identification, or RFID — is 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, says Mark Roberti, founder and editor of RFID Journal.

“In the past, RFID tags typically displayed a serial number and not much else,” Roberti says. “But now we have applications that can read those tags and know, ‘this is a piece of an oil pipe.’ We can read the tags as they’re going down in the well. 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 organizations, those are innovations with bottom-line potential.

Emerging RFID Applications for Field Service

  • 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, in a giant oil field — 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.

RFID tags use radio signals to transmit data to a computerized reader. Typically, they’re used in inventory and parts-tracking environments, such as large warehouses. Wal-Mart, for instance, has been a trailblazer with RFID 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 instance, Robert recalled an RFID project involving BP oil tankers:

“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 BP 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.”

RFID 2.0

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

Roberti says 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.

“We’ve had tags and readers for a long time now, but we haven’t necessarily had a complete software solution that companies could deploy immediately,” Roberti says. “A lot of companies built their own solutions from scratch. But now we’re starting to see some packaged solutions, with maybe 80 percent of what a company would probably want already [built in].”

More: M2M Technology: 3 Insights for Field Service.

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ABOUT Ian Stewart

Avatar photoIan is a veteran journalist who has covered sports for various news outlets. Previously, he was managing editor for an electronic-book publishing company and a public relations writer.