Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are a broad category of smart labels encompassing near field communication (NFC) tags, ultra-high-frequency (UHF) tags and more. If you’re considering deploying an RFID solution, it’s important to understand the differences between each RFID type and partner with a pressure-sensitive label converter experienced in delivering tags for your business application.
Here, we’ll cover everything you need to know to compare different RFID types:
- What are RFID tags?
- Comparing ultra-high-frequency (UHF) vs. high-frequency (HF) vs. near field communication (NFC) vs. low-frequency (LF) RFID tag types.
- An explanation of the difference between active, passive and semi-passive RFID tags.
What are RFID tags?
RFID technology relies on radio waves to send and receive information between a tag and a reader. At its simplest level, an RFID reader sends a signal out to an RFID tag and the tag sends back an information-carrying signal. Unique information —such as a GS1 Electronic Product Code™ (EPC)— can be programmed into each individual RFID tag, which are then affixed to products, boxes, pallets or even high-value equipment depending on the application.
It’s easiest to explain RFID tags (or labels) by comparing them to barcodes. Similar to barcodes, RFID tags are commonly used to quickly retrieve product- or pallet-level information. But because RFID tags use radio wave technology, they don’t require direct line-of-sight in order to be read — meaning entire pallets or truckloads of products can be read as quickly as 700 products per second. This gives RFID tags a clear advantage when it comes to driving visibility and efficiency at the supply chain level (called smart label tracking).
Beyond distribution and supply chain benefits, many brands are leveraging RFID tags to engage with their customers at a personal level, allowing consumers to access educational content and / or product-specific landing pages by scanning the label.
Comparing RFID tag types: UHF vs. HF vs. NFC vs. LF RFID
There are a variety of RFID tags on the market today, differentiated by frequency range (low, high and ultra-high). Each RFID type can be either active (powered), passive (un-powered) or semi-passive (battery-assisted).
Low-frequency (LF) RFID tags: 30 KHz to 300 KHz
LF RFID tags have slower read rates and shorter read ranges than UHF or HF, but they’re less susceptible to interference by liquids and metals because they have a longer wavelength. Because of this, they’re often used in applications where an RFID label is affixed to a metal substrate, such as inventorying beer kegs or automobiles.
High-frequency (HF) RFID tags: 3 to 30 MHz
HF RFID tags have longer read range and higher memory capabilities, making them well-suited to cataloging library media or for use in tracking bracelets for theme parks. Within the HF RFID category are a common type of smart label: Near field communication (NFC) tags.
- NFC vs. HF RFID
NFC tags are a subcategory of HF RFID technology. All NFC tags are HF RFID tags, but not all HF RFID tags are NFC tags. NFC operates in a very specific subset of the high-frequency range —13.56 MHz— and have very different use cases and implementation considerations from other RFID categories.
- Key differences between NFC and other RFID categories
One key difference is that NFC tags have a much smaller read range, often requiring the reader and tag to be no more than a few centimeters apart. And while other RFID types allow for entire pallets of tags to be read at once, NFC tags must be read one at a time. With larger memory capabilities and two-way communication capabilities, though, NFC tags are much more useful for storing and communicating large amounts of information — making them an incredibly valuable tool in promotional campaigns.
- Applications for NFC tags
NFC technology provides secure, one-to-one coupling, making it useful for contactless payment applications such as ApplePay™. And because almost all smartphones function as NFC readers, NFC tags are popular in promotional labels and posters, and are also a good tool for personalized customer engagement. To learn how brands have leveraged NFC technology, read our articles on NFC applications in wine labels or in the healthcare industry.
Ultra-high-frequency (UHF) RFID tags: 300 MHz to 3GHz
UHF RFID tags are considered the “supply chain frequency” because they’re generally lower priced than the other types, while still providing good read ranges and rates. Common applications include item-level tracking, retail inventory control and driving supply chain efficiencies.
Wal-Mart, Target and the Department of Defense (DoD) mandate that their suppliers provide RFID tags with every product and pallet. This reduces the need for manual inventorying, as hundreds of tags can be read simultaneously. And it allows them to more accurately identify incoming inventory by reading entire truckloads of products at a time.
Active, passive and semi-passive RFID tags
Active RFID tags have a battery and periodically transmit signals, useful in location tracking applications. Because the battery in active tags can boost signal strength, they tend to have a longer read range (up to 100 meters).
Passive tags remain dormant until they receive a radio signal from a reader. The energy from the reader’s signal is used to turn the tag on and reflect an information-carrying signal back to the reader.
Semi-passive (or battery-assisted) RFID tags contain a battery, but do not transmit a periodic signal like active RFID tags. Instead, the battery is only used to turn the tag on when a signal is received — this allows all energy from the reader’s signal to be reflected back.
Because active tags tend to be much more expensive, they are often only used to track very high-value assets, such as equipment in the construction, automobile or healthcare industries. Passive tags —especially ultra-high frequency (UHF) and near field communication (NFC)— are the most widely used for product and pallet labels.
Beyond tags: Looking at the entire RFID system
While tags are integral to the success of your RFID application, they don’t tell the whole story. There are four key components to an RFID system: The tags, readers, antennae and the RFID information processing system. And to ensure each of these four components work together in perfect harmony, you’ll need to enlist a label converter experienced in deploying RFID solutions at scale.
At Resource Label Group, we have more than 20 years of experience in designing scalable RFID solutions for large companies looking to leverage the value of supply chain visibility, customer engagement — or any other use case.
Reach out to us today to start a conversation about your RFID application. With customers ranging from DoD suppliers to top 100 Wal-Mart suppliers to airports looking for luggage tracking solutions, we have the expertise and bandwidth to partner with you to design any RFID solution at any scale.
Find the best solution that makes the most sense for your brand.