Magazine Article | September 24, 2008

Align RFID Tags With Business Requirements

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Enterprises have plenty of RFID (radio frequency identification) tag options. But, choosing the right tag starts with the application itself.

Integrated Solutions, October 2008

When it comes to RFID deployments, there is a handful of hardware components. And, perhaps the most fundamental of those components is the RFID tag itself. With its coiled antenna and embedded silicon chip, the RFID tag is an almost iconic image of the entire RFID industry. It's the RFID tag that generated the most attention as enterprises focused on tag-specific issues that simultaneously stalled and propelled the industry forward. Will there ever be a nickel tag? Are the tags based upon any standards? What are the read ranges of these tags? What kind of yield rates can I expect?

Initially, there were more questions than answers. Today, however, that has changed. Few question the foundational technology behind RFID tags. Enterprise consumers' questions now center on the capabilities of particular tags as they relate to given applications. If there ever was a notion that one tag would fit all applications, well, that notion is largely not manifesting itself in today's marketplace. The standard 4-by-6-inch RFID pallet tag is certainly being delivered in ever-increasing volumes. But, enterprises now have a host of specialized tag products from which to choose as they look to optimize their RFID deployments.

For some enterprises, 'generic' RFID tags make a lot of sense. For other enterprises, more specialized tags are required to meet deployment objectives. In any event, choosing the right RFID tag will largely determine the success of the overall project. Enterprises must now consider their RFID tag options before making a final determination. And, the evaluation process needs to include both price and performance. Additionally, plenty of resources have been made available to enterprises that can be useful in the RFID tag evaluation process. Some offer hands-on testing in specialized RFID centers, while others provide results from tests that they have conducted in clinical conditions.

As RFID continues to gain mindshare as a potential solution to business problems, end user enterprises will have to determine the best tag to use for their applications. For many, that means a passive, UHF tag that is Gen 2 certified. But, how do you narrow the field from that point? There are plenty of considerations to be made when it comes to selecting the right RFID tag. (For the point of this article, the focus is on the range of passive UHF tag solutions.)

At this point in the RFID industry, there is no 'one size fits all' tag that can be applied to any application and achieve the desired results. The much-hyped Wal-Mart and U.S. DoD tagging initiatives typically involved RFID-enabled, 4-by-6-inch pallet labels. And, for most pallet- and case-based RFID projects, this type of RFID tag remains quite standard. However, there are plenty of instances when this 'standard' RFID tag just won't make the grade. Products that are metallic in nature or shipped in metal containers, for example, severely hamper the effectiveness of these RFID tags. The same holds true for liquid products. In such cases, enterprises have to find alternatives to the standard RFID-enabled shipping label.

By all accounts, the fastest-growing segment of RFID deployments is in closed-loop environments. While these initiatives may be propelling the industry forward, they certainly present some unique challenges when it comes to tag selection. Using RFID for WIP (work in process) is a closed-loop environment that potentially includes tagging metal assets and heavy RFID interference. As a result, different types of tags need to be evaluated to determine which one best meets the stated requirements. Additionally, tags and hardware can be configured differently to optimize their performance. Tags, for instance, can be insulated and not affixed directly to the metal asset. Also, tag location can significantly impact read rates and speeds. "Hardware configuration is another area that can greatly affect the performance of RFID tags," says Bill Brown, RFID tag product manager at Alien Technology. "For instance, excessive cable length between the reader and antenna is a configuration issue that impacts performance. The overall positioning and placement of readers and antennas also plays a vital role. And, of course, there are the items that are being tagged. These are all configuration issues that experienced solutions providers can address."

There's certainly no harm in initially evaluating the performance of standard RFID tags. And, there will be cases where these tags are perfectly appropriate given the objectives and requirements of the deployment. When a use case falls outside of what a standard tag can adequately handle, then other tags need to be evaluated for such things as read rates, reliability, read ranges, and placement.

Generally, there is a tag for every project under consideration at end user enterprises. (If there isn't a tag available, there is no shortage of companies that will develop a custom solution for the right price.) This means that the best solution for a deployment may be an application-specific tag. These tags have been optimized to deliver the best performance for specific applications. The design of the tags has taken into account such facts as the asset being tagged, the environment in which it will operate, potential physical constraints, and performance requirements. To get a sense of the application-specific tags available, first visualize a standard 4-by-6-inch pallet label. Now, imagine using RFID tags to track luggage at an airport, small bottles of pharmaceuticals, DVDs, or plastic totes. Each of these applications requires something different from the RFID tag. In some cases, it's high reliability. In other cases, it's read range. In other cases, ruggedness or a small footprint. In most cases, it's a combination of factors that lead to choosing an application-specific tag.

"In the future, we think that less-expensive, general-purpose tags will account for about 50% of the RFID tag market. The remaining 50% will be customized, premium-priced tags," states William Colleran, president and CEO at Impinj. "There's also the issue of price versus performance when it comes to tag selection. Read reliability, for instance, can be such an important factor in some deployments that tag cost is hardly an issue at all." An example of this scenario might come from healthcare, where RFID tags are used to track biologics that are tested and used to determine patient treatment. Given this application, paying a few extra cents per tag seems inconsequential compared to the potential exposure. "Price isn't a driver at all. It's all about reliability," adds Colleran.

The crux of the price-performance issue comes down to user requirements for the RFID tag. Without specific project requirements, it's difficult to identify the best RFID tag for the application. Also, it's challenging to make sure that you're getting the right tag at the right price. "When you have clearly defined expectations and requirements, you'll choose the most appropriate tag related to price and performance. Without those requirements, you run the risk of spending money on capabilities that you don't need," explains Jan Svoboda, RFID sales and marketing director, Americas, at UPM Raflatac. "Tag selection is so much easier when companies know their requirements for given projects."

Companies face no shortage of business problems. And, many are now considering RFID as part of a potential solution to those problems. However, relatively few companies have RFID experts in-house. As a result, enterprises are turning to technology vendors and solutions providers to lead RFID deployments and evaluate potential RFID tags. "Companies may already have technology partners that have a focus on RFID. That is a good place to turn," says Colleran. "However, RFID is still emerging in terms of solutions provider expertise. So, an RFID deployment also presents a company with the opportunity to work with new partners and evaluate capabilities of providers."

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The reliance on solutions providers and technology vendors is a natural progression for the RFID market, explains Svoboda. "Companies recognize the value of RFID, but they don't have the expertise of companies like Procter & Gamble and Gillette (early adopters of RFID technology). But, it's no different from bar coding technology in that regard. Companies don't have bar coding expertise in-house. They turn to solutions providers and technology vendors to help them deploy technology to solve a business problem."

Over the past few years, a tremendous amount of RFID information has been accumulated and distributed. And, there is no shortage of information available from various sources today. Companies that are evaluating their RFID tag options can certainly leverage these information resources to help them make an informed decision. "Some third-party testing [of RFID tags] is done very well. But, the testing was not done in your particular environment," adds Brown. "These tests and data are a good place to start, but you really have to evaluate the tags in your environment. It's the best way to make the most informed decision."