Radio frequency identification (RFID) is part of the family of Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) technologies that includes 1D and 2D bar codes. RFID uses an electronic chip, usually applied to a substrate to form a label, that's affixed to a product, case, pallet or other package. The information it contains may be read, rewritten and/or recorded.

RFID entered the packaging spotlight in January 2005 when mass merchandiser Wal-Mart's RFID mandate went into effect amid much buzz and confusion. For many consumer packaged goods companies, the mandate was seen largely as an added cost and thus adaption was slower than many expected. Many companies used a “slap and ship” approach to meet the letter of the mandate without leveraging the technology for actionable information.

RFID is often used in conjunction with an Electronic Product Code (EPC) for either item-level (primary) or case (secondary) or tertiary packaging (pallet load) AIDC.

There's a whole spectrum of frequencies associated with RFID, with two of interest for packaging being Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) per the Wal-Mart mandate which, in North America, is the 902-928 MHz portion of the RF spectrum, which permits a read range of from three to several dozen feet, and close-range Near-Field Communication at 13.56 MHz. NFC permits interaction with smartphones for that desirable consumer engagement at the far end of the supply chain.  It's estimated that there are 200 million NFC-enabled smartphones, a number that is expected to grow three-fold to 600 million by 2015.

Recent developments also move RFID beyond the use of silicon chips and into printed electronics, which in mass production offer the promise of lower per-tag costs.

More information is available at the GS1 US website.

In November 2013, the new GS1 upgraded and ratified its RFID standard, commonly known as Gen2. This revision of the EPC UHF Generation 2 air interface standard includes new features and additional functionality to help address supply chain challenges including anti-counterfeiting and product security.

For more on RFID from a packaging view, see our article "An RF spectrum of developments."