Although it has been the subject of intense speculation over recent years, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tagging has fulfilled many of the predictions made by industry forecasters more than ten years ago, when pilots of wide-scale deployment by retailers began.

Item level RFID tagging has revolutionised how many businesses manage distribution, inventory, shrink, and anti-counterfeiting. There were nearly 4bn tags sold for retail applications in 2012 according to predictions from technology analysts IDTechEx, and almost a quarter of these were for apparel.

RFID has not replaced existing product identification systems such as barcodes for fast moving high volume items with low unit costs, but it has found a natural place in the supply chain where maximum leverage can be obtained through cutting labour costs, while increasing inventory accuracy and distribution efficiency. 

Technology has reached impressive heights with an enormous variety of inlays and readers available on the market. There are so many in fact that one fashion RFID lab at Italy's University of Parma has developed a testing protocol to certify technology for the apparel sector.

Under the direction of a steering committee made up of representatives from Italy's biggest fashion houses, including Benetton, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and the Max Mara Fashion Group, the lab started a programme in 2008 called 'RFID4 fashion certified'.

The project has tested 15 devices so far, including Motorola and Impinj readers and a series of inlays and tags. The results of the testing are available free on request.

Laboratory director Prof Antonio Rizzi told just-style that "technology is not really the issue today", adding: "We have tags and readers that have excellent performance but our main issue is to better understand the technology and what other benefits we can derive from it".

Technology developments 
The technology has certainly reached an impressive level.

Globally-oriented and California-based Avery Dennison's Smart Face technology, for example, is a chip with a high quality printable surface that blends the previous two-step process (production of an inlay that is then glued onto a hang tag) into one.

Woven tags have also reached new levels of integration with the actual garment - for instance Switzerland-based TexTrace's woven label, introduced last year.

The antenna of the TexTrace RFID tag (essentially the part that transmits information) is actually a yarn compound with an electrically sensitive component that is an integral part of the woven label. It can resist various processes involving enzymes and acids in fabric treatment and washing.

The chip can theoretically last the entire life of the garment from the point of manufacture through to point of purchase and beyond, to deal with eventual warranty issues and, ultimately, recycling of the garment.

The application for these kinds of labels, noted TexTrace head of marketing Sybille Korrodi, is particularly in "the upper mainstream segment and particularly where the manufacturer has their own retail outlet. All research shows that retail is where you are getting the most benefit [from these kinds of tags]".

Luxury German apparel manufacturer Mersmann introduced the tags in early 2013, and also uses them for theft protection.

Omni-channel opportunities
Meanwhile, omni-channel retailing has introduced a host of new possibilities for RFID applications, with retailers looking to offer seamless shopping to customers through a smartphone or tablet, the internet as well as in physical locations.

Such sophisticated sales strategies require pinpoint inventory accuracy and supply chain visibility.

The convergence of technologies and especially the potential for customers to interact with a product is expected to drive levels of RFID adoption significantly, according to Ram Ravi, senior research analyst for auto identification and data capture with international consultants Frost & Sullivan.

"Near field communication (NFC) is the new trend in the retail world. NFC is basically used for everything from access control to payment at POS (point of sale) in the retail industry. With the rising usage of smart phones with built-in NFC technology, NFC will gradually gain prominence across applications in retail and apparel," he said.

Ravi added that innovation such as chipless RFID tags (tags without a price-sensitive silicon component) and printed electronics could also drive demand.

This is an area that is being intensely investigated by academics such as Australia's Monash University researchers Stevan Preradovic and Nemai Karmakar.

In their book 'Multiresonator-Based Chipless RFID - Barcode of the Future' published in 2012, they make a very good case for chipless tags that can store unique identifiers about each product at a cost comparable to that of a barcode when printed with conductive ink on plastic and paper. That said, the authors note that "the design of a fully functional printable chipless tag has not been reported so far".

Prof Rizzi said that at this stage chipless tags with their reduced data storage would probably not be appropriate for common use cases in the apparel sector, but could have great application for fast moving consumer goods.

Driven by industry demand to explore functionality and ever cheaper solutions, research in the RFID area is seeing intense activity. Eureka - the European innovation research network that has more than 1,000 projects in its industrially-driven R&D project bag - currently supports at least 30 projects devoted to RFID.

To read other chapters in this briefing, click on the links below: