About a decade ago, it was almost impossible to find a tech analyst who wasn’t predicting that radio-frequency identification (RFID) would soon change the world. While RFID eventually became a useful tool in retail, logistics, healthcare and a handful of other enterprise sectors, the technology failed to grab the spotlight as expected. However with the recent advent of IoT, RFID tags are fast prepping themselves for the second act by becoming an essential component of IoT implementation. According to a recent report by by IDTechEx the total worth of RFID market is forecasted to rise upto $13.2 billion in 2020.
While this makes it sound like RFID is fast taking over the world, there is one other technology that has influenced the advent of IoT equally – iBeacon technology. Of recent, beacons have been leveraged by a number of industries across various verticals in their quest to make the most of contextual intelligence provided by these proximity detection devices. Given all this, it is not surprising that one of the questions that comes to the minds of marketers when they weigh the advantages of integrating beacons with their digital marketing strategy is – Will beacons ever replace RFID tags?
If you are new to beacons then you might want to check out our recent article on how RFID and iBeacon technology measure up against each other. We have also answered some FAQS around how iBeacon, NFC, GPS compare against each other, what are the basic differences between Wi-Fi and iBeacon technology and how Wi-Fi and iBeacon technology can be used together.
In this post we will discuss in detail on whether beacons will ever replace RFID tags and if so what are the advantages of doing so.
Will beacons replace RFID tags?
Before we answer this question let’s clear the air around the basic differences between beacons and RFID systems.
1. Beacons were designed to communicate with smartphones over relatively short distances (Beacons typically have a wireless range of 1m to 70 m) compared to active RFID systems that run on a battery or other energy sources (such as light via photovoltaic cells) and can broadcast signals at a longer read range (100 ft or more).
2. Beacons by nature are designed to help with proximity marketing while RFID systems are designed to help with real-time location of assets.
3. Beacons are majorly battery-powered and therefore are more expensive as they call for frequent battery replacement compared to low-cost passive RFID systems that have no battery. These devices draw power from the reader, which sends out electromagnetic waves that induce a current in the tag’s antenna.
Therefore, while beacons will evolve over time and take the place of active RFID systems for some applications, it would be farfetched to think it will evolve to the point at which beacons will replace all active RFID systems.
Benefits of replacing RFID tags with beacons
Like we said before, over a period of time beacons will definitely replace active RFID systems for some applications. This is primarily because, with the rise in the adoption of smartphones and apps as business tools, there are quite a few benefits that businesses looking to replace RFID tags with a more enabling technologies such as iBeacon can use to their advantage. Let’s take a look:
1. Beacons help automate manual activity – One of the most popular use cases of RFID tags is employee check-in. In this case, employees are required to tap the RFID tags built into a wand against the fixed reader installed at the location, to keep a check on the number of service hours. This often distracts employees from completing the task at hand, and adds another activity to an already full schedule. For example, Spotless , a cleaning and maintenance service provider in Australia, faced the same issue when they tried leveraging RFID systems to manage janitorial service at malls. They also found that if an employee forgot to tap his or her wand at the reader, the time that individual spent at that location was not recorded.
In their efforts to find a solution to this problem, Spotless then went on to run a beacon pilot at two malls in New South Wales and in Victoria, with a total of 300 beacons in places such as the food courts, in front of stores and in bathrooms. As a part of this campaign, Spotless employees were asked to install an app that was integrated with a beacon platform on their phone. A Spotless employee could simply turn on the Bluetooth setting of his/her smartphone and use the app to sign in to his/her shift, and then go about his/her work for that day. As she moved from one area to another, the beacon at that location would transmit information to her smartphone which would then send data on where he/she was at a given point of time back to the server, via the app. Thus contrary to how RFID systems work, beacons actually operate in the background and help track employee activity without the need for manual intervention.
2. Beacons leverage smartphones and allow for extensibility – To reap the benefits of iBeacon technology, you need to have an app (on a smartphone) with which the beacon can communicate and interact with. This allows businesses to leverage beacons for tasks beyond simple tracking such as receiving location specific task lists, automating safety and compliance alerts and integrating with other applications, like time-tracking.
For example, in the earlier mentioned example, the beacon data shared with Spotless, not only allowed them to keep a digital record of which services were provided, as well as when, for how long and how often, but also allowed Spotless to gain insights on how training and deployment of staff members for specific jobs could be improved. Another good example is Safe Site, an iBeacon app collaboratively built by Apple and IBM, that leverages beacons to allow site managers to respond promptly to avoid danger, report incidents, and share alerts with nearby employees. The app also alerts users when they are near hazardous areas.
3. Beacons allow for greater accuracy and coverage – Using techniques such as trilateration (the process of finding a location, assuming the location is known distances from known points) beacons can accurately track movement and activity across a space. On the other hand, RFID tags can only track if a tap occurred, and not the activity in between each tap. This provides the opportunity to ‘game’ the system, rather than effectively ensure compliance and safety standards are met.
4. Beacons are flexible and cheap – Beacons typically cost you anywhere around $10 – $70, are majorly battery powered and allow for easy deployment and shifting from one location to another. On the contrary, RFID readers cost between $1000 – $5000, and are permanent fixtures. This limits the ability of businesses to adjust the setup of RFID systems based new service agreements or changed environments.
Are there any other benefits that beacons offer over RFID systems? Let us know in the comments below.
If you are planning a beacon pilot, take a look at Beaconstac, that includes everything you need to get started. Using Beaconstac you can set up your own campaign, without a developer’s help!