Intelligent, flexible printers remain a key systems component as the RFID (radio frequency identification) market shifts from supply chain focus to closed-loop apps.
Integrated Solutions, September 2009
Written by: Brian Albright
RFID technology has steadily proven itself a reliable and increasingly affordable automatic identification solution for a variety of applications. Label printers/encoders play an important role in many RFID deployments, and although some models were initially designed and utilized in inventory management and supply chain tracking applications, changing market dynamics have pushed printer vendors to design solutions with greater flexibility and more intelligence built into the printer to service a wider range of business cases. "People are being more creative and more aggressive when looking at closed-loop applications for their particular environment," says Cindy Guiles, product manager at Datamax-O'Neil. "They are being more efficient within their own four walls and trying to do more with fewer people."
The economic downturn has negatively affected RFID adoption in traditional markets like manufacturing and distribution, but the technology is gaining ground in other areas. According to recent research from VDC Research Group, these high-growth RFID markets include commercial services (including library and textile applications), government agencies, and the oil and gas industry.
Many end users have also shifted their RFID focus from supply chain management applications to internally focused systems like asset or work-in-process tracking, while companies in the healthcare, transportation, hospitality, security (access control), and air transport (baggage handling) markets have begun deploying the technology. These new applications have created demand for RFID printers with support for a broader range of RFID inlays and increased printer intelligence. "We have seen RFID printers being used in many closed-loop applications that we never thought of in the early days of RFID printing," says Stephen Hull, product manager at SATO America. "Lots of companies have found a fit for RFID by putting the technology to use, not just waiting to be told to do it by a large customer."
Part of this shift has been the result of large retailers like Wal-Mart scaling back what had been aggressive vendor compliance programs that would have required RFID labels on all pallets, cartons, and (eventually) items shipped from suppliers. "Wal-Mart's pullback on compliance tagging has caused the industry to consider closed-loop applications, which are less complex to integrate and easier to manage and provide a faster ROI for the organization," says Carolyn Ricci, senior product manager for RFID at Zebra Technologies.
Support For New RFID Tags, Form Factors Critical
While the type of applications RFID printers are used for is changing, end users still want versatile printers that can handle the common RFID inlays at a competitive price. They also want those devices to be easy to service and integrate with existing network technologies. Lastly, they want purpose-built devices. "New printers are being produced that have been designed with RFID in mind, as opposed to adapting RFID into existing thermal printers," says Hull.
Customers are also looking for printers that can support new RFID inlays with greater data storage capacity and longer read ranges. The ability to store more information on a single tag and to read more tags at greater distances can save companies money. "If you are able to put more data on the tag, it can be used throughout the manufacturing process in a work-in-process application, for example, which allows you to collect greater amounts of data," Guiles says.
Newer printers can also handle smaller label media with shorter pitches. Printing inlays on smaller labels can lower the cost per label, reduce the number of media roll changes per shift, and enable faster printer/encoder throughput. "By reducing the cost of the RFID label, the consumable cost will be closer to the break-even point in a company's return on investment model, thus driving more rollouts and saving on existing RFID projects where the technology can be implemented," Hull says.
RFID capabilities are also finding their way into different types of printers, beyond the traditional thermal printers typically used in distribution applications. There are, for instance, new card printers and portable label printers that have integrated RFID capabilities. "We are seeing more point-of-application printing as opposed to printing at a centralized location, which requires associates to tag items in locations away from the printer," Ricci says. "The benefits of point-of-application RFID printing include a reduction in human errors associated with incorrectly tagging products and the ability to retag merchandise on display."
RFID Printers Provide Operational Value
Although printers are often considered a commodity item, they serve a critical function in enabling RFID applications, particularly as companies utilize the technology in a greater number of applications. "The RFID printer industry will continue to face a difficult economic environment during the next year," Ricci says. "However, if the industry can educate the market on unique applications that are easy to integrate within the existing IT infrastructure and emphasize the high ROI potential, then customers will begin to view this technology as a method to truly improve operational efficiencies."
Customers should have clear business objectives and an understanding of current RFID standards such as ISO 14443, ISO 15693 for high frequency (HF) devices, and ISO 18000-6 and EPC Gen 2 for ultra high frequency (UHF) RFID to determine which technology is needed based on read ranges, memory requirements and infrastructure. The printer should be flexible enough to support future RFID standards and must be able to accurately encode, print, verify, and void each label consistently. "Every customer needs verification that the transponder has been encoded with the correct information and that it is not a defective unit," Ricci says. "It is also essential that the printer have the ability to void a bad or incorrectly encoded inlay."
Guiles adds: "There is more intelligence associated within the printer. I hear more customers asking questions about that functionality, but the need for verification is not always apparent to everyone."
RFID printers (and RFID technology in general) have become increasingly robust and reliable over the past several years, while prices have dropped dramatically. That makes it much easier for companies to cost-justify an investment in these systems, particularly for closed-loop applications like asset tracking that provide a rapid and easily quantifiable return on investment.