Insights / RFID 101: What Radio-Frequency Identification Tech Can Do for Your Restaurant, Venue, or Event
RFID 101: What Radio-Frequency Identification Tech Can Do for Your Restaurant, Venue, or Event

The biggest use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tech in the restaurant industry has traditionally been to track goods. Your operation probably isn’t at the scale of Chipotle’s, but it’s interesting to note that the burrito chain has been tinkering with RFID tags to help track inventory from warehouses to restaurants. It’s easy to imagine the advantage of scanning a huge quantity of food items with a single device, almost like a mobile barcode scanner, and coming up with an itemized list of what you have, how long it’s been there, how much it’s worth, and what you need to order. It’s cool stuff.

But RFID is also making the leap from food safety and efficiency to customer-facing gadgets, and here’s where smaller restaurant and bar operators might find it useful. Some restaurants are using RFID to speed up fast-food table service — a customer holding a transmitter, it turns out, is easier to find than a customer in the corner with a numbered placard. RFID bracelets are also quite good at streamlining mobile payments and other single-scan transactions such as gaining ticketed access to rooms or grounds.

RFID systems involve the use of radio frequencies to transfer information from tags to a computer database. In the event space, for example, you may find RFID technology in the form of wristbands. Ticket-holders at a concert or a festival can use a kiosk to link their wristband to a credit card before they belly up to your food truck or your bar, and pay their tab with a wave of their hand. Multiplied by dozens or hundreds of transactions across a weekend, this could save you immense amounts of time and hassle. It also lets your guests grab three beers and pay without so much as fumbling for their wallet.

Tons of hospitality industries are adopting the technology: exhibitions, hotels, resorts, amusement parks, and venues. As a result, RFID has become much more accessible to small and mid-sized businesses — opening the way for plenty of services to give you consultations on which RFID technology would suit your space. From there, your imagination is the limit. Just consider the scientists currently using the technology to track the inbound and outbound movement of bees in a nest — an impressive feat, considering how bees rarely respect re-entry policies.

Your best bet if seriously considering implementing the technology is to speak to a professional. Until then, it doesn’t hurt to have a basic understanding of the hardware and software going into a consultation, especially because there are major price jumps between different types of RFID systems.

Here’s all the information you’ll need to make RFID decisions that are on your frequency.

How does RFID actually work?

RFID is comparable to barcoding, in that information attached to an object or person can be captured by a remote device and collected into a database. 

The main difference is that RFID technology allows this transmission of information to occur at further distances and with less room for human error. Instead of a finicky scanner and barcode, the information is communicated in a more reliable radio wave transmission. 

The equivalent to a barcode in RFID technology is the transponder, or “tag.” A venue might embed this tag in a wristband, for instance, in lieu of a ticket. A RFID reader, which can either be portable or fixed, uses radio waves to activate the tags, which in turn send a wave back to the reader, and then to a computer database, via the tag’s antenna.

What types of RFID systems are out there?

There are advantages to each type of RFID, which you can determine as soon as you understand the way RFID operates. RFID systems are characterized in a few different ways. First, they are named by their frequencies, or the size of the radio waves they emit. Most commonly, RFID systems are labeled low frequency (LF) RFID and high frequency (HF) RFID.

There are advantages to both high and low frequencies. A system operating at a lower frequency is slower to read data (slow by computer standards, anyway) but it has a greater ability to read data near materials such as metal and liquid that are less conducive to the transmission (more on that in the section below). A system operating at a higher frequency can transfer data at higher speeds but is more likely to be affected by those less-conductive materials.

Here are the labels you’re most likely to see and their respective frequencies: 

  • Low frequency (LF) RFID (between 30 - 300 kHz)
  • High frequency (HF) RFID 13.56 MHz (3 - 30 MHz)
  • Ultra high frequency (UHF) RFID (a lot more than that, but you probably won’t be using this one)

Neither low nor high frequency systems can track tags further than a foot away from the reader. The LF tags need to be a few inches from the reader, and the HF tags can be up to 12 inches away. One of the two options should be sufficient for events, as humans can be easily trained and are prone to self-subordination.

The next order of business is splitting RFID systems into those with passive and active tags. Passive RFID systems have been the main focus of this article; passive tags have no power source save for electromagnetic energy transmitted from the reader. Active tags are battery-powered. As a result they can be read at further distances, up to 5,000 or so feet.

You may have also seen an option for “battery assisted passive tags” or BAP. These tags turn on when they receive messaging from the reader, which begins an information transfer that’s similar to that of a passive RFID system.

Both the active and BAP options are a lot more expensive than the passive tags and much less commonly used in hospitality settings. We’ll touch on pricing lower in this article. First, back to the matter of materials.

Do liquids or metals interfere with RFID readers?

To answer this question, we reached out to James E. Heurich, President of RFID, Inc., a major RFID manufacturer. He told us the most sensitive part of the tag is the antenna.

“If you put a [computer] interface and the reader on metal, it’s no big deal,” he said. “But if you put the antenna on the metal then, yes, it would be affected. You have to go through certain mounting methods.”

In this case, “mounting” refers to the way in which an antenna is integrated into a tag. If the backing is metal, it needs a certain kind of spacing. You will not need to worry about metal backing if you avoid using metal completely on your tags. Liquid will almost always pose a bigger threat to the success of your data collection.

“If I were to stick an employee badge on a breast pocket or on a lantern on my chest, it typically wont read because I’m a liquid vessel,” Heurich said.

When asked about the effectiveness of wristbands, he said there isn’t enough liquid in the wrist to pose a problem, but if the customer were to take the tag off and place it somewhere else on the body, it might not send a signal. 

What about all the cell phone and WiFi signals flying around?

At this point Heurich began a very technical explanation of RFID’S “spread spectrum frequency hopping,” and how a reader transmits a signal extremely fast and “skips all around,” so, if there were to be other technologies transmitting signals at the exact frequency of the RFID technology, they won’t stay together very long, hence they wouldn’t interfere.

He says this concern, which we brought up as if it were the general population’s greatest concern instead of our own, is overblown.

How do I set up a computer database to make RFID useful?

The database you use will depend on what information you’re tracking. For the sake of this article, let’s say you’re a midsized venue or organizer looking to tag wristbands that guests will scan to get access to certain areas.

First, you’ll need a computer to install an RFID “middleware.” That’s a software designed to take the data and put it into an digestible database. There are a lot of middlewares available, of varying complexity. 

A simple middleware product will link devices and give you raw data. A more complex middleware product will allow you to create timely reports on the data, link tags with additional information, provide various methods for removing and adding tags, and more.

How much is this all going to cost?

Here’s where a consultant could give you a much better answer, because there are costs for the type of equipment, the installation, ongoing maintenance, a computer database, and, yes, licensing costs, although they are often included in the system purchase. The price for the whole thing will depend greatly on the volume you’re ordering, as companies will often give you deals for certain packages.

It’s helpful to know, however, that a passive tag is your cheapest option, coming in at $0.10 cents to $1.50 per tag. Active tags are going to be closer to $15 per unit, but even these will vary. The reader can be in the thousands, and the computer database will be at least a couple hundred. These are all gross estimations.

RFID technology can be an excellent way to eliminate crowding at entry, encourage purchases, reduce your staff and, yep, confuse the hell out of yourself during preliminary research. But you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. Start by determining your budget and what functions you’d like the tags to serve, and then bring that information to a consultation with the confidence that there are plenty of deals and packages available in RFID’s white-hot market right now.

And if you’d rather pass on the RFID tech altogether, for everyone’s sake, hire enough employees at the ticket check.

[Photo by Keegan Checks via Pexels]

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