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RFID moves to access control applications

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) has achieved a level of recognition in enterprise supply chain tracking and management thanks to RFID mandates made by organizations like Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense. Use of the technology seems to be growing, but sometimes away from the supply chain.




October 9, 2008
By Lawrence Cummer

Estimates from information technology research and consulting company
Gartner suggest that revenue from RFID will grow 30.9 per cent in 2008
to $1.2 billion, over 2007 revenue of $917.3 million. By 2012, Gartner
predicts worldwide revenue from RFID to be $3.5 billion.

Still, a market and policy overview from the Security Industry
Association and the Stanford Washington Research Group states that most
of the excitement and promise of RFID supply chain adoptions is still
three to five years away. The group also suggested that RFID will
complement, not replace, barcodes in the supply chain sector.

But, RFID has applications beyond tracking, managing and securing the
supply chain. In fact, use in the supply chain has been slowing down in
the past two years, according to Anuj Mehta, senior solutions architect
for enterprise security initiatives at Unisys, which develops back end
information systems for RFID deployments, including the U.S. Department
of Defense’s.

He attributes this adoption slowdown to the number of parties that must
be involved in adopting RFID across an entire supply chain.

“The thing is: anything in the supply chain involves multiple parties,
and getting parties to agree on how information should be shared, the
policies and procedures on what not to share. And, knowledge data is
very valuable and certain people, namely wholesale distributors, who
charge for that information,” he said of the sometime reluctance to
cooperate across the supply chain.

Mehta said that organizations that control every aspect of their supply
chain are implementing RFID, as well as pharmaceutical companies.
Hospitals, he said, are also beginning to use the technology to better
track their assets, because of the extraordinary value of the equipment
and the need to be able to quickly find it.

Generally, cost and accuracy continue to be one of the issues
preventing a number of potential applications of RFID for security and
otherwise, however both are improving, according to Mehta.

“The accuracy for passive RFID has improved tremendously. The cost has
come down now to around 10 or 12 cents (each tag) on a very, very large
scale, but it’s a significant investment, especially if you are part of
a supply chain. It’s an investment from everybody as it goes down (the
chain).”

Standards become a third challenge in supply chain adoption as
organizations select between RFID products in the High frequency (3-30
MHz) or Ultrahigh-frequency (300 MHz-3 GHz) radio ranges. With
different manufacturers using HF or UHF respectively, those along the
supply chain could need to have readers supporting tags from both
technologies, a further expense.

Mehta said that some industries have created something of de facto
standards. In pharmaceutical retail and supply chain applications,
where RFID has become popular, HF is used; in airports, like the Las
Vegas airport, where RFID tags are being trailed for baggage tracking
and to make security more efficient, UHF is being used.

As well as inventory tracking in hospitals, and the odd airport trial,
Mehta said he’s seeing RFID find its way into some unique applications.
High end retailers are using it to augment customer experiences, while
using it to track inventory, and Vegas casinos are even embedding RFID
into their chips to fight counterfeiting and make them easier to count.

It’s also finding use in access control, by replacing traditional magnetic swipe cards or even old fashioned keys.

Amir Zouak is vice president of Canadian operations for Salto Systems. The company is a developer of RFID-based locking systems.

According to Zouak, the advantage of his company’s RFID locking system
is that rather than information being stored on individual separate
locks throughout a building it is stored on an RFID key card. Where in
the past, information changes would need to be made manually at each
lock by security staff walking the building, they are instead made

automatically at what Salto calls a “hot spot.”

Additionally, using a single system for the traditionally disparate
systems of online perimeter doors and offline internal doors, all
communicating with the same network streamlines access security, Zouak
said.
The University of Winnipeg recently moved to Salto’s RFID-based locking
system in effort to shore up access security, add functionality not
previously available and reduce costs, according to David Mauro,
director of security and community ambassador services at the
university.

The school, which has a population of about 10,000 staff and students, has complex security needs, and over 2,000 doors.

“In any institution with this many doors, eventually key control tends
to get lost and rekeying is a major project. And, access control is
essential to forward security in an environment like this,” Mauro said.
“We found that this technology doesn’t require us to have data
connectivity to every door because it has a smart lock.”

The system also allows for flexibility that was unavailable in the
university’s previous locking systems which Mauro called “dated by
adequate,” and he achieves “economies of scale related to human
resources” managing those systems. The flexibility stems from the
information that can be stored in the RFID cards.
“There’s huge flexibility with this kind of card system, related to
various nuances like fire code issues, and adaptation of lock systems,
even simply installation. A door can be cut very easily and have a lock
like this and have the highest level of security,” he says.

Mauro suggested that RFID helps with the university’s goal of further
integrating security systems. He said that cost savings experienced are
around the “huge hidden costs” of maintaining traditional key systems,
the costs of numerous additional keys and swipe card systems. The cost
of an individual traditional lock is driven up by the cost of having
numerous keys, and management and inventory off them, he says.

But RFID for access control isn’t only the purview of large enterprise
or campus security. One small, boutique hotelier in British Columbia
has turned to it to meet his access control security needs.

Brad Sieben, general manager of the Hotel El Dorado in Kelowna, BC,
said he moved to RFID-based access control to improve security. His
55-room hotel up until mid-2007 used an old key system in place as an
attempt to create old-fashioned ambiance, and Sieben was reluctant to
go to a magnetic card-swipe system typically used in the hotel industry
because of numerous personal experiences showed them to be unreliable.

Without a magnetic swipe, there is less wear and tear on an RFID based
card, he suggested. Also, like Mauro, Sieben has his eye on the future
when access control security can become integrated with other aspects
of the business, even beyond security, through the information that can
be stored on the RFID cards.

“This is the wave of the future, as we move forward we’ll want to
[integrate] with point-of-sale systems, for example. I’m not sure the
technology is there yet, but we could put RFID all over the property.”

The only determent to the RFID move for his hotel, according to Sieben,
is cost. At about $1 a pop, RFID cards are typically more expensive
than swipe cards, and in the hotel industry there’s a habit of guests
forgetting to return them. Still he predicts the cost coming down and
is enthusiastic that proximity RFID “cards” can be made in a variety of
shapes, like coins, that could enhance the customer experience.

Mehta said that the opportunities in the future for RFID-based access
systems to be integrated with other security and information systems
are “absolutely huge.” Trials are being done today where his RFID
access information system, and intrusion detection and other security
systems from other vendors are being managed on the same database, but
he said he’s excited about a future were it is more common.

“There’ll be more systematic integration with general building
automation (and RFID access sytems), meaning integration with fire
alarms, with CCTVs, and things like that, to really offer one global
security solution to an end user…It is extremely powerful.”