Radio frequency identification:

RFID equipment will be on display in a special RFID Pavilion at Pack Expo Las Vegas

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is one of the biggest trends to hit packaging in years. It promises a slew of benefits to manufacturers and retailers alike, including unprecedented control over the supply chain and enhanced product security.

RFID involves the use of electronic tags with computer chips that can store data. The tags, affixed to pallets, shipping cases or individual packages, transmit their data to reading systems, enabling shipments to be recorded and tracked throughout the supply chain. Some forms of tags are battery-powered, but "passive" or "backscatter" tags are more common; these derive their power from the reader's signal.

The drivers for RFID are major retailers, led by Wal-Mart, who see an opportunity to take even more costs out of the supply chain. These retailers are pulling large consumer packaged goods manufacturers into the RFID era.

RFID adoption is roughly analogous to the adoption, decades earlier, of the bar code: It's a slow, organic process that requires the involvement of an objective industry group. The group in this case is EPCglobal, a nonprofit, industry-supported organization specializing in supply-chain issues and standards.

At the end of last year, EPCglobal finalized the Generation 2 standards for RFID equipment. Gen 2 is a communications protocol designed for maximum speed and reliability. Gen 2 tags will be able to handle the different radio frequencies in use in different global regions. ISO, a Swiss organization that sets worldwide industrial standards, is expected to soon pass an RFID standard that mirrors Gen 2.

RFID equipment vendors are now putting out products that meet the Gen 2 standards. Gen 2 and its predecessor, Gen 1, are incompatible protocols. But over the short term, many if not most RFID readers will be capable of switching between them, easing the transition.

Under the Gen 2 standard, tags will be erasable and rewritable. For many end users, the option that makes the most sense will be printers that make and code each tag separately, just before application. A system like this confers maximum flexibility, which will become increasingly important as RFID evolves from use on pallets and cases to use on individual packages.