Item level RFID - the prosperous market 2006-2016

Dr Peter Harrop
Item level RFID - the prosperous market 2006-2016
Visit to learn more about IDTechEx research on Item Level RFID
Item level RFID is the tagging of the smallest taggable unit of things - the library book, apparel, jewellery, engineering parts and laundry are examples. Already profitable for most suppliers, item level tags and systems will be the world's largest RFID market by value from 2007 onwards. Item level RFID tagging will rocket from $0.16 billion in 2006 to $13 billion in 2016 for systems including tags. In 2006, 0.2 billion items will be RFID tagged in the world. In 2016, 550 billion items may be RFID tagged. Those adopting item level tagging today do so willingly and are prepared to pay for good performance as they enjoy rapid multiple paybacks.

Relatively problem free

This is in some contrast to pallet and case tagging where consumer goods companies are required by retailers to fit the tags regardless of economics. The consumer goods companies are therefore reluctant purchasers of RFID and these tag and interrogator prices are in free fall from oversupply. The RFID tag and interrogator suppliers involved typically lose money. Here we are talking about Far Field UHF tags, which work well enough on pallets, cases and air baggage under US radio regulations but are only relatively trouble free elsewhere in applications with very low reader density, shortish range and dry, non-metallic environments. That means retail apparel in the UK and Japan and books in bookshops in the Netherlands, for example. The problems elsewhere are because, as yet, few countries outside the US permit adequate UHF power levels, bandwidth and signalling protocols for RFID. By contrast, HF is the most popular frequency for item level tagging and, with well over one billion such tags delivered, it encounters few remaining technical problems. So called Near Field UHF is a promising alternative that may give lower costs when proven in high volume applications.

Unique requirements

The biggest item level potential involves uniquely coding very high volume products, such as consumer goods, postal items, apparel, books, drugs and manufactured parts. These total 5-10 trillion items a year. Item level tagging therefore involves most or all of the following features and this creates technical and business challenges and benefits that are very different from those in other applications of RFID.
  • Suitable for Electronic Product Code EPC coding/mass serialisation and open systems
  • Small
  • Made in millions to trillions yearly
  • Need to read items individually but also many at a time
  • Proximate metal and/or water
  • Potential paybacks rarely worth more than a few percent of the value of the item tagged
  • Tags need to be disposable or fitted for life
  • Unquantifiable safety and security benefits are often sought and achieved
The US Food and Drug Administration will make tagging of up to 20 billion prescription drugs a legal requirement in the US, the TREAD Act will create a tire tagging market in the US and many new high priced retail items will enjoy the excellent paybacks currently found with apparel in the UK, China and Japan. China will rapidly adopt item level tagging. Globally, healthcare supplies, tools and assets are being urgently fitted with RFID for safety, security and cost control, including theft reduction. Boeing and Airbus are progressing the tagging of aircraft parts and equipment. Over ten million test samples for blood (Europe) and milk (New Zealand), drug research and other uses have been tagged with the potential of billions yearly.
However, it is challenging to meet the most sophisticated requirements for item level tagging and to evolve appropriate technical specifications and approval procedures for, say, mission critical aircraft parts. At the other extreme it is tough to get down to the price that justifies tagging a can of soda in a supermarket or a letter. Item level tagging has therefore started with the many lucrative intermediate requirements as shown below and it is rapidly widening in scope.
Evolution of item level RFID by tag price showing earliest date of mass adoption of leading application in each price band is shown below
Source: IDTechEx
Projected value of item level RFID tag sales by application in 2016 is as follows
Source: IDTechEx

Change in technology

The technology will change. Today we have most item level tagging being HF, with smaller but significant amounts of Far Field UHF and some 2.45GHz and LF (125-135KHz) tags. Within five years Near Field UHF will become popular and in ten years a significant amount of item level RFID will be done without a silicon chip, sometimes by direct printing. The average price of just under one cent for an item level tag in 2016 will cover a range from 0.1 cent primitive ink stripes and thin film transistor circuits to $8 tags for aircraft parts to high specification and even more expensive military tags. Some tags for dangerous, expensive or mission critical items will have batteries and sensors in them and even act as Real Time Locating Systems (RTLS) on assets in hospitals, museums, art galleries etc not just in supply chains.
The table below shows that the larger potential markets for item level RFID promise a wider range of benefits. They may not be as price sensitive as is popularly believed.
* May rise to 1000 in ten years as East Asia expands
Source: IDTechEx
IDTechEx has newly researched this subject in great depth including extended visits to China. (For example, the State Monopoly Tobacco Administration sells 37.5 billion packs yearly and is keen on RFID for anticounterfeiting). IDTechEx has now produced the world's first in-depth report on item level RFID, the most lucrative and soon the largest RFID market. As befits the importance of the subject, in dwarfing all other forms of RFID, the report extends to two volumes - "Item Level RFID Volume One: Forecasts, Technology, Standards" and "Item Level RFID Volume Two: 100 Case Studies, Paybacks, Lessons Learnt". For more see