Chapter 5: RFID issues – RFID for Libraries

5

RFID issues

Introduction

Change is an issue that has received emphasis, as it must be understood that any modification of an existing organizational environment does not simply require a process focusing on locating a new improved piece of technology with a good reputation and placing it into the current system. In actual fact, a good deal of thought must be taken as to whether the technology would fit the organization’s environment and way of working, the effects that such a dramatic change may have and if the current employees really are ready for it (Nightingale, 2009).

Information and communication technologies are playing an increasingly important role in the implementation of value-added processes that overarch several steps. As organizations invest in technological innovations to gain competitive advantage in the marketplace, they need to realize that although technology is an enabler, the adoption of new technology could pose a complex challenge, especially with the rapid pace of technological change. The most recent technology in which organizations are investing to gain competitive advantage is radio frequency identification (RFID). RFID as a symbol of a new paradigm eliminates the separation between the physical goods and the information corresponding to it. This technology has the potential of impacting an organization’s business profoundly. Many organizations have adopted this technology and others are in the process of doing so. Although the initial drive for RFID adoption was supply chain management, today many organizations are involved in implementing RFID to solve business problems (Borriello, 2005). RFID is a powerful technology that holds great benefits and promises to revolutionize the item-level tracking.

Emerging technologies that relieve the library staff from time-consuming operations have always been of interest to libraries. In today’s fast moving world, existing systems for checking items in and out of libraries increasingly seem slow, labor intensive, inflexible, and prone to inaccuracy. Libraries are fast growing adopters of RFID as the technology promises to relieve staff from repetitive circulation jobs, speed patron self-check, reduce pilferage, and provide accurate and timely inventory management. RFID-based systems improve convenience and flexibility for both the users and the library. Quicker and easier to operate, these systems enable improved inventory control, minimize losses via internal misplacement and theft, reduce manual work for library staff, and deliver better read rates and accuracy than traditional manual handling. Another function made possible with RFID systems is fast and easy location of books. This can be achieved either by placing antennas on shelves to define their contents or with a handheld proximity reader, and enables quick inventorying and the location of misplaced items. Despite these promising applications of RFID in libraries, a number of challenges have hampered the adoption of RFID. It has been suggested that library RFID applications may be the first major deployment of item-level tagging. The library provides the panorama to study the operational issues of RFID tagging at the item level. While the literature has discussed a number of perceived and expected problems with RFID in the supply chain, it is sparse on performance and reliability of RFID library systems. The implementation issues highlighted in the supply chain include failed or erroneous reads, handling of large amounts of data generated by the tags, lack of mature standards, collision, and failure in the presence of metal-and liquid-based products. Investigation of RFID in the library environment is important, as it is decidedly different from a distribution or manufacturing environment. The major RFID issues in libraries can be broken down into technology issues, social issues, and economic issues. Let us look at them in detail.

Technology issues

Technological uncertainty reflects the risk that RFID may fail to deliver the expected benefits within the anticipated time frame or that it may be superseded before the benefits are realized. Technology risks and challenges with RFID originate from many sources. One primary issue is the current reliability of the technology itself. RFID systems face many technical challenges and obstacles to practical adoption. A major hurdle is simply getting RFID systems to work in real-world environments. Systems that work perfectly in a lab setting may encounter problems when faced with environmental noise, interference, or human elements. A great number of variables affect the characteristics of all RFID systems, including (NISO, 2007):

 width between security gates;

 number of items simultaneously exiting the library;

 material of which the items are made;

 size of the RFID tags;

 tuning of the antennas on the RFID tags;

 orientation of the tags in the portal;

 tags’ relative positions to each other.

There are a host of other technical problems that affect RFID technology, which can be grouped as hardware, software, integration, and standard issues.

Hardware issues

Not all the applications of technology and product are perfect in every way, especially RFID, which utilizes radio frequencies to transmit signals. Radio frequency interference problems and reading difficulties concerning read ranges and read rates are most inherent to RFID technology. The interference and detected accuracy in the transmitted process influences actual efficiency of the application. The interference with metal and fog, the distance between reader and tag, and the antenna direction are factors leading to loss of detection. Generally the effective read range of an RFID system is dependent on many different factors including:

 tag-reader frequency;

 tag energy efficiency;

 alignment of the tag’s antenna with respect to the reader’s antenna;

 coupling between the tag and the reader;

 antenna design as well as the shape, size, and quality of both the RFID tag and reader;

 sensitivity of the reader;

 transmitting power generated by the reader;

 environment (outdoor and indoor);

 susceptibility to noise and interference from other radio devices.

The problem with read rates is simple, in that tags passing by a reader may not register, may register to an adjacent reader, or may even register incorrect information. Tag and reader manufacturers have been working diligently to resolve these problems, despite the reality that variability in environmental conditions is almost infinite. Attempting to read several tags at a time may result in signal collision and ultimately to data loss. To prevent this, anti-collision algorithms can be applied at an extra cost. The development of these methods, aimed at reducing overall read time and maximizing the number of tags simultaneously read, still goes on (Burdet, 2004).

The other hardware problems include RFID reader collision and RFID tag collision. RFID reader collision occurs when there is an overlap in the coverage area of multiple RFID readers. Because RFID tags are designed to only be able to transmit to one reader at a time, this can cause several problems. One is that the signals from overlapping readers can interfere and prevent the item from being scanned. Another is that the signal convergence can lead to the same tag being read more than once, leading to duplicate and inaccurate scanning results.

Not only do metal, mist, and distance influence the read/write efficiency of RFID, incorrect positioning of antennas also causes failure even if the tag and the reader are very close together. Besides, too close a distance among tags may produce interference between tags or erroneous access. For example, if one patron is taking books to initiate the loan process under self-check-in/checkout equipment (RFID reader), and another patron is standing too close to the first patron, the reader doing the self-check-in/checkout may detect the tags of books that are held by the wrong patron (Yu, 2007).

Tags may be damaged during usage. A wide range of application challenges can be answered by the multitude of suitable tags, yet none of them is completely invulnerable and the causes of damage may vary from type to type. The result is a read failure, which is, in many cases difficult to detect, as is the fact of the damage itself for a hidden tag.

Adverse conditions of the environment and improper placement may corrupt reading. As mentioned before, absorption, ambient reflection of the signal and external signal sources (such as security systems, cordless phones, and barcode scanners) may introduce read errors. Similarly, improper orientation of tags may impair reading efficiency, as most antennas used in tags are direction-sensitive. Manufacturing of tags is not yet 100 per cent failure-free today; about 20–30 per cent of tags used in early RFID pilots have been defective (Lewis, 2004).

RFID tags are not hidden since these tags are typically affixed to the inside back cover and are exposed to vandalism. Some interference from metallic material in book covers, CDs, and DVDs does occur and tag reading may not be correct. RFID tags are easy to shield from readers by ordinary aluminum foils and may not serve the purpose of being anti-theft tools.

RFID reader range depends on its power and antenna size. With malfunctioning RFID readers, the difficulty is in knowing when malfunctions occur.

Maintenance of security gates: A disadvantage of electronic security systems located at exit points in the library is that they create a false sense of security, and detection can also be overcome by power failures, or by electrical or electronic faults. Their typical success is preventing the absent-minded patron from taking books out of the library, or the novice thief. No electronic book theft detection system is foolproof and no security system can eliminate book theft (Mansfield, 2009).

Software issues

Any software solution that is developed today will at best be a stop-gap arrangement as the technology itself is evolving. New technologies are being introduced with different RF physics, transmission schemes, supporting different frequency bands, new protocols, new standards, multi-protocol support, changing governmental regulations, etc. Thus, any software solution developed now will have to evolve with the RFID technology should be extendible and adaptable with minimum disruption to the deployed infrastructure (Prabhu et al., 2006).

Most RFID systems use the SIP2 or NCIP protocol to communicate with the library management system (LMS). This means that the currently used software for the library’s operations may not meet the requirements for the RFID system. In such cases, the library’s current software will need to be modified to include the SIP2/NCIP standard or the library will have to switch to some other software package that does support the standard and re-enter hundreds to millions of items, depending on the size of the library. Also, the middleware based on SIP2 or NCIP for integration of RFID systems into the existing LMS available today is still not tailored to the needs. LMS-RFID integration is very important for everyone involved in RFID in libraries. This includes LMS suppliers, RFID suppliers, and of course libraries. When an RFID tag only contains a unique number (accession number), which identifies that copy of the book, that is the only piece of data which can be communicated between the RFID system and the LMS system. This data would normally come from the LMS. The interface between the RFID and LMS would have to be able to exchange all this information (Edwards and Fortune, 2008).

System integration issues

Like most information technology systems, RFID systems still require practical expertise to install, configure, and manage. End-users should expect to experience mundane technical complications that arise while implementing RFID. Despite marketing claims to the contrary, RFID is not a ‘magic bullet’ that is simple to implement out of the box. In order to function appropriately, the RFID system must be integrated with other information systems. Internal integration requires that an organization’s existing facilities, equipment, hardware, and software be examined in light of the proposed RFID system, and then procedures put in place to insure a smooth implementation of the new RFID system (Viehland and Wong, 2007).

Standards issues

Technological standards are one of the current issues that the RFID industry until now has failed to address and are a barrier to its popularity over more established technologies. Although using useful standard elements from similar technologies there is unfortunately a lack of a 100 per cent agreed upon standard dedicated to the technology, meaning that any RFID’s implemented in the current time period run the risk of becoming rapidly out of date and furthermore incompatible with any additional RFID plans that an organization may choose to implement in the future. The tags used by most vendors of library RFID are not compatible even when they conform to the same standards because the current standards only seek electronic compatibility between tags and readers. The pattern of encoding information and the software that processes the information differs from vendor to vendor; therefore, a change from one vendor’s system to another would require modifying all the software. A unified, globally interoperable RFID standard is ideal to realize the full benefits of RFID applications. Lacking technological standards and the current uncertainty of technological standards are major barriers to RFID implementation. Lack of uniformity in RFID technology and standards keep the costs high, and standards are the key to the proliferation of RFID technology. The establishment of a standard will force the cost to drop since RFID product suppliers can all produce compatible chips, readers, associated hardware, and software.

Social issues

Privacy

One issue often linked with RFID technology is the general consensus that it impedes the privacy of those affected; its monitoring capabilities can potentially obtain data that patrons may not wish the library to posses, their location for example. Although a lot of these privacy issues are claimed to be over hyped, it is still recommended that any academic library wishing to carry out an RFID project creates a quality privacy policy and reviews it continually (Nightingale, 2009). The privacy issue is also a subject of debate in the application of RFID technology. All patron activities such as reading, browsing, and action behavior will be detected by readers that are installed in libraries. These observing operations are similar to surveillance and may be a privacy problem for the patron. Such issues and concerns about privacy may prevent the application of active services in libraries.

Economical issues

Costs

The cost of the RFID system and its integration to existing information systems is a major challenge in the global rollout of the technology. RFID systems require expenditures for tags, readers, hardware, software, and system maintenance. Prices, in particular those associated with the smart tags, are yet to settle at a reasonable level, certainly in comparison with the more traditional library system methods such as barcode technology (Nightingale, 2009).

The cost is one of the major factors influencing acceptance of RFID, although the production costs of RFID have reduced. This is especially the case with item-level tagging. For library collections with over 100,000 items, it will be hugely expensive to implement RFID completely. Plus, the costs for the reader, peripheral equipment, and application software will be even more of a burden. This will stretch the budget, and the schedule for implementation of an RFID solution will be hard because libraries hold enormous collections (Yu, 2007). Description of costs of various RFID components are given below:

 RFID tags. These are usually the most important costs associated with RFID technology. They are fairly expensive and the cost depends on the form factor, memory capacity, read or read-write capability, active or passive configurations and range. The cost of the tags can further be broken down into three major elements: the silicon chip, the copper antenna, and the process of joining the two. To be economically viable, the cost of the tags will have to be brought down.

 RFID readers. Reader costs vary depending upon the features such as network enabled or wireless readers. When more readers are planned, the price of the readers could also be a critical factor.

 Middleware costs. Middleware cost is another component that adds up the cost in addition to the cost of the library management system.

 Integration costs. No matter what the middleware chosen, integration costs will be a large factor in RFID implementation. Some systems may need to be replaced altogether if they are not capable of taking advantage of incrementally large volumes of real-time data.

 Installation costs. The cost of the installation of the RFID equipments, affixing RFID tags on items, and programming.

 Maintenance costs. Factors influencing maintenance include hardware upgrades, replacement of failed or damaged equipment, middleware upgrades or licensing fees.

 Costs of the training of personnel. When introducing new processes and technology, it is necessary to train the personnel.

Return on investments (ROI)

Return on investment is a measure used to evaluate the efficiency of an investment or to compare the efficiencies of number of investments. To calculate the ROI, the benefit of the investment must be divided by the cost of investment and the result is expressed as a percentage or ratio. In the commercial world, all things are measured by ‘return on investment’ or ROI. The cost of the new technology is compared to the increase in profits. When libraries measure their success, profit is not part of the equation as with other institutions that provide services, such as educational institutions and research establishments. Libraries ‘spend’ their ROI on new services or on beefing up existing services. They also spend their ROI to respond to budget cuts or to loss of buying power when budgets do not keep up with inflation. This makes it hard to demonstrate that an investment in technology is worth the cost.

Libraries do have to justify their technology budgets to their boards or their institutional oversight committee. However, some amount of the expenditure on technology is not a matter of a measurable return but is simply the cost of continuing to be a player in a high-technology information society. Any library that fails to keep abreast of technological change will be quickly seen as irrelevant in the larger information context. Libraries do not usually perform rigorous analyses to justify their purchases of equipment. There is an assumption in the profession that libraries cannot calculate a return on investment because our services are intangible and cannot be measured (Coyle, 2005).

The following are factors to be considered in assessing ROI (Smart, 2004):

 time, labor, and materials costs for processing new materials;

 time and labor associated with checking-in, sorting, and shelving materials;

 percentage of staff time spent on the above circulation tasks;

 percentage of staff time spent training and managing parttime workers/volunteers performing the tasks listed above;

 number and value of lost items for a specified time period;

 time spent searching for lost items;

 time spent doing inventory and the amount of inventory completed;

 time and labor spent in shelf reading and maintenance;

 percentage of circulation currently being done by self-check;

 average wait at circulation desk during a busy period;

 number of staff at the circulation desk during a busy period;

 number of requests caused by mis-shelved materials;

 ongoing equipment maintenance costs.

RFID in the digital environment

While the role of the library continues to evolve with advancement of the internet and other information technologies, the fact remains that the library is still the premier warehouse for the written word. However, in many libraries, the requirement to hold printed materials is declining with time, as more efficient delivery methods for information evolve. While this is true within the public library sector, it is especially being felt within academic libraries. The application of RFID within libraries is tied very closely to physical assets and their management. Whether it is collection management, security, or circulation, the physical library assets are what are being considered in any discussion of RFID. If online delivery of information is progressively displacing the need for physical assets, academic libraries might question the benefit of investing in technologies designed to manage items for which they have a reducing need. This is not to suggest that libraries will cease to carry books, but rather to acknowledge that the benefits delivered by physical asset management systems such as RFID may gradually be eroded if current academic library trends continue (Lewis, 2006).

Discussion

One of the common concerns in implementing RFID today is the rapid obsolescence of the technology, especially in view of the investment cost. Technology is continuously evolving and new protocol standards, faster and more fault-tolerant readers quickly outdate their predecessors. Failure to detect tags that are present in the read range of a reader can be due to a variety of causes including collisions on the air interface, tag detuning, tag misalignment, and metal and water in the vicinity of the RFID system. It is imperative that RFID systems eventually approach 100 per cent reliability. Costs remain the largest impediment for the widespread adoption of RFID. RFID is not cost effective if seen as a transactional technology alone, since cost savings at an operational level will not be sufficient to justify the investment. Significant effort would be required to obtain the necessary capital funds to implement RFID solution, and the operating costs required to make it sustainable.

A key to reducing costs is to increase the volume of demand; this can be facilitated if a unified global RFID standard exists. A universal RFID chip, which can be used by different applications in different countries, is an ideal to pursue; this ideal universal RFID chip would have a frequency-independent capability and would be integrated with read/write memory. Furthermore, for an RFID chip to satisfy the requirements of multiple applications, a minimum set of commands must be designed so that it can be customized by software for a variety of applications (Wu et al., 2006).

Neither EM nor RFID are ‘security systems;’ they are ‘theft deterrent’ solutions. A real library security system that would guarantee protection is called a closed stack. We need the best tags and the best gates on the market if part of the mission is protection. Most of the RFID gate systems on the market are 2D, which means they will not detect an item in all positions through the gates. That is a 33 per cent performance sacrifice just for the gates. If protection is a metric of investment, then 3D gates are essential but that add up the costs.

While the challenges to worldwide adoption of RFID are significant, they are not insurmountable. As with many other emerging new technologies, it will simply take time for reality to meet ends with the ideals. As more efforts are put in for RFID research and development, more pilots will be run and more data will be collected; these can be used to solve problems that stand in the way of widespread adoption. This is an ongoing process.

But for now, it has to be made clear that though the RFID technology promises a number of fancy characteristics, its real application is not straightforward. Many people think RFID is magic – that it just works. RFID is a costly system that offers some great advantages over barcodes. Even though the technology still hasn’t matured, the opportunity for immediate and dramatic improvements in customer service and productivity outweigh the negatives. Improvements in standardization have already occurred, with several additional standards under development. Most large system providers have mainly resolved the problems with interoperability. Improvements in tag life expectancy and durability have improved substantially in the past few years. The benefits of RFID technology cannot be ignored in today’s tight staffing and funding climate. RFID technology is maturing and continues to see tremendous innovation. Today, RFID systems have become broader, deeper, and cheaper. Readers are using less power and are operating faster and at longer distances and with more ability to handle interference. For more widespread application, RFID technology must overcome some of the challenges that slowed its initial development. Organizations that are implementing RFID today need to be aware of the upcoming technological developments. They need to prepare their organizations for the next generation of technology. Companies have to get away from thinking of RFID as a cost-cutting tool and look at its broader strategic role and explore its potential. RFID technology needs to be treated as part of a suite of technologies helping to enable different business processes and become a mainstream part of information technology systems.

Conclusion

RFID has come a long way but arguably still has some way to go before it lives up to the original hype. With all these promises, it is not easy to separate truth from hype. Technical reality changes constantly, and within hype might be found a note of reality. We must walk the fine line between believing the benefits of the technology touted by vendors, and knowing how it will solve real-world business issues. Vendors with heavily invested RFID resources obviously promote the existing, future, and even dreamed-up advantages of RFID, but they seldom shed light on obvious and much lower-costing alternatives. The key to finding the optimal use for RFID is to begin at the beginning and first consider your organization’s strategic objectives. RFID must be applied in a balanced way that takes into consideration strategic objectives, without being carried away by the hype of RFID (Brooke, 2005). RFID offers significant potential benefits, but one must consider the entire picture of an organization in order to see the greatest benefit. Additionally, do not mistake the best solution to be the one with the highest price tag. Expensive solutions are not the answer. Another way RFID will change is in its architecture. Today, the common model for RFID employs a tag that communicates with a reader, but there is no tag-to-tag communication. Having tags that talk to each other creates some interesting possibilities. When all is said and done, there is only one certainty: RFID will change.