Before the doors to the RFID Health Care Industry Adoption Summit opened, I found myself in a small group at the booth of healthcare packaging company Owens-Illinois for a private demonstration of RFID item-level tracking (ILT). Owens-Illinois was showing off plastic medication bottles with embedded HF (high frequency) and UHF tags. (Tagsys reps drove the HF demo, while Impinj spearheaded the UHF demo.) This is a potentially huge breakthrough in package manufacturing that could alleviate the RFID deployment burden of pharmaceutical companies and expedite the path to RFID-based ILT in the pharma supply chain. Just a few minutes into the HF demonstration, a big-box retail executive in attendance blurted, "We want to see UHF work." As the staff shifted gears and started to set up the UHF demo, the executive clarified his position. He didn't just want to see the UHF demo. He was saying that the retailer wanted to see UHF as the single frequency for ILT and supply chain apps. He wanted to "see UHF work."
The success of the demonstration notwithstanding, this statement by the big-box executive is a good indication of the support that UHF enjoys. When large retailers and government departments are striving for one frequency in their enterprises, indications are clear that they prefer that frequency to be UHF. Beyond these entities, suppliers already have voiced reservations about supporting two frequencies within their enterprises. These drivers are not technological, but they are real. And, they will go a long way to shape the world of RFID in the future.
UHF Passes Demo Tests
What about the technology? Surely, UHF can't succeed for ILT if the technology simply can't perform. At the demo, UHF essentially outperformed all expectations. The plastic bottles — filled with liquids, capsules, solids, and powders — were easily read by the UHF readers at speeds of more than 550 bottles per minute. And, unlike HF-tagged bottles that required space between them, the UHF-embedded bottles abutted one another as they flew by on the conveyor.
At the case level, the UHF readers picked up all 48 tags packed within the case as well as a case-level tag affixed to the outside of the package. The orientation did not matter as the box was turned upside down and on its side. In each instance, all 48 reads were recorded as the box moved by at a speed of 40 feet per minute. When the conveyor could not accommodate an increase in speed, the retail exec handled matters by simply pushing the case through the reader array at a very high speed. Again, the readers recorded the tags.
Owens-Illinois reps claimed the company has no preference as to whether it produces HF- or UHF-based packaging for the industry. Like more solution providers, it simply wants to deliver what's best for the customers. In this case, it's increasingly likely that what's best will be UHF-based solutions. HF proponents point to the fact that accuracy of UHF tags is not yet determined, while HF tags are proven to be extremely accurate. The accuracy of UHF tags, however, will be tested by third parties, and this argument will be quelled. After all, UHF for ILT was only widely unveiled in the first half of 2006. So, accuracy data is still being gathered. And, that short life span of UHF for ILT means that real development work and advancements in the technology are largely on the horizon. As impressive as the technology has proven to be at this point, it's only the beginning of the story.