Put the right tag in your RFID bag

by Graham Wiemar

RFID tag manufacturers must keep up with seemingly minute-by-minute advances in technology, as well as the demands of their customers to provide a product that won't become obsolete shortly after its implementation. For companies looking to enter the RFID world, the amount of information available, much of it extremely technical, can make the task seem daunting at best, if not downright impossible or at least impractical.

Take, for example, the concept of Super RFID tags, which scientists in the United Kingdom are currently working on. These tags would be capable of sensory perception in harsh and difficult-to-access environments and could send out alerts if, for example, a frozen-food product was not being stored at the proper temperature. This technology may not be available for years, but a U.K. company called Instrumentel has recently developed a wireless and battery-less system that incorporates the concept of Super RFID tags.

Luckily, there are several tag manufacturers that are willing and able to help companies sift through the deluge of arcane facts and figures to reach a viable RFID solution for their businesses. There are also organizations such as EPCglobal US that conduct RFID educational and training conferences and provide information via their websites. EPCglobal US is a not-for-profit organization that is charged with commercializing electronic product code (EPC) technology in the United States.

In the U.S., The Kennedy Group's RFID division features one of the industry's most extensive testing facilities and the largest smart label and tag manufacturing capacity in North America. ODIN, another player in the RFID field, has produced the EPC Tag Benchmark 2005 report, which was developed to provide end users with insight into how well tags work and the criteria that should be considered in selecting tags.

According to ODIN president and CEO Patrick Sweeney, his company regularly receives new RFID tags at its labs, and the report reflects the company's evaluation of the newest technology available in EPC-compliant tags. Fourteen tags were analyzed, including 64 and 96 bit versions and some newer tags such as the Symbol Trident, the Impinj Propeller and the Rafsec Butterfly.

End users can use reports such as ODIN's Tag Benchmark to obtain objective, scientific information as they proceed with their tag selection process. The EPC focus is generally on three types of ultra high frequency (UHF) passive tags: Read-Only (Type 0), Read-Write (Type 0+) and Read-Write (Type 1). Class 1, Generation 2 (or C1G2) tags are currently being defined and will contain many of the best features found in Type 0 and Type 1 tags.

Understanding inlays, RFID labels

RFID UHF tags are available in four different formats: inlays, adhesive inlays, labels and converted products. Inlays include both the RFID chip and antenna mounted on a substrate. The adhesive inlay format simply adds a pressure-sensitive adhesive to the back of the inlay. Labels are RFID adhesive inlays attached to thermal transfer labels for use in printers. Converted products provide an inlay that is laminated or encapsulated into a specialized package. This package includes plastic, rubber or some other material that can be custom designed, molded or laminated.

Most experts agree that RFID tag selection can be difficult and time-consuming, but it is essential to the successful operation of an RFID program. An RFID system will break down if the tags don't work with the products in the field.

Bill Arnold, partner business manager at Omron Electronics, says that although the material make-up of the tags his company manufactures has not changed in the past few months, "We are optimizing our tag design for the general market requirements and developing specific designs that meet special requirements. Manufacturing goes through continuous improvement to deliver maximum yields of good inlays."

For UHF applications, Omron makes EPC Class 1, 96 bit inlays. Arnold says, "Our tag improvements deliver higher yield performance, and our customers benefit through greater application coverage and better label yields. We will have additional tags for difficult material applications and for specific market requirements.

"The primary market trend is for reducing the costs," Arnold continues. "We are exploring ways to maintain high quality while greatly reducing the delivered cost of a tag."

Mark Brown, vice president of new business development for Lowry Computer Products, says his company's current focus is to meet the demands for UHF EPC compliant labels for carton and pallet tracking applications. Lowry converts RFID inlays into pressure-sensitive labels suitable for use in desktop printers and automated labeling systems.

"We recognize that improvement is always possible," says Brown. "As the quality of the materials and production processes improves, the level of customer satisfaction and overall acceptance of RFID solutions will go hand in hand."

Brown admits that a number of things have changed in just the past few months that are worth noting. "Transition from 64 bit to 96 bit technology has produced better yields and better performance, and more antenna designs are delivering better performance on products that are RFID unfriendly," Brown says. "There are more suppliers of inlays and more to choose from, and that competition benefits end users and potentially leads to better pricing and better quality."

Symbol Technologies Inc., which produces the popular Trident tag, manufactures and supports a full suite of standard RFID tag inlays using UHF. Larry Blue, vice president and general manager of Symbol's RFID Tag Business Unit, says his company has numerous inlay products with varying chip and antenna designs but has a standard array of 12 inlays. "These 12 inlays are embedded or inserted into numerous finished tag products in both read only and read-write versions to meet the requirements of our customers. To date, our standard 12 inlays have been inserted into over 175 custom-finished label products."

Symbol has made several improvements recently in its chip designs for better reads and writes, longer distances, faster speeds, anti-collision, security blocks and directional orientation insensitivity. "We have a custom tag design process where custom inlay products are developed for specific applications pending market and business case justification," says Blue. "Extensive technology and process development has been put forth in the development of Symbol's Parallel Integrated Circuit Assembly (PICA) manufacturing process. This process will result in next generation manufacturing and assembly equipment directly attaching chips to an antenna inlay, increasing the output by 10 times that of current assembly equipment."

SATO America offers HF and UHF passive RFID labels supporting a variety of inlays and protocols. "We use Ullays from a number of partners, including Rafsec, Alien and Avery Dennison," says Jan Svoboda, RFID business unit manager for SATO. "To stimulate adoption of RFID technology, SATO is continually innovating on all fronts of the technology. The current critical development step is to deliver a global RFID technology based on the Gen2 standard."

Although this may seem like rocket science to some, any company that isn't seriously looking into RFID technology will be stuck on the ground while its competitors take off.

Unit-level RFID could be just around the corner

The use of RFID tags at the individual package level "is going to happen faster than anyone thinks" according to Patrick Yanahan, president of USA Strategies Inc., a marketing and research agency that has specialized in the packaging, food and beverage industries for more than 25 years.

USA Strategies has announced the formation of the Embedded RFID Group, which is a cooperative project between companies from the packaging, information technology and consumer goods industries. Its objective is to evaluate unit-level RFID packaging, test packaging technologies and technical systems, further develop them in practice and, in the long run, set processing standards for unit-level packaging that can be implemented on an international scale.

"The group is being put together so that technology providers and packaging industry suppliers can address the big issue of how do we get the chip and antenna on the package so it works and is affordable," says Yanahan. "The common objective is to promote innovation in retailing and work out visions of RFID unit-level application for the future. Consumer packaged goods companies will be invited to join after the initial group has agreed upon its vision and mission."

The group will work closely with many converters, molders, resin suppliers and closure manufacturers to develop ways of embedding the chip directly in the package.