A couple of years ago, it seemed like every other technology headline was related to RFID and Wal-Mart. But, because of the high cost of RFID tags and read/write success rates at a dismal 70%, many put this technology in the 'wait and see' category. I recently spoke with several RFID industry experts, and if there is one thing they all agree upon, it's the fact that RFID has come a long way in the past year and a half. By taking advantage of advances in RFID technology and applying the experts' best practices advice, you can greatly increase your chances of RFID implementation success right now.
RFID INTEROPERABILITY, COMPATIBILITY ISSUES GREATLY IMPROVED
One of the noticeable drawbacks with RFID has been the limited media and printer choices. Basically, if you chose one vendor's printer, you were locked in to that same vendor's media partner. Even though EPCglobal's Gen2 standard was ratified in December 2004, its benefits hadn't been fully realized until the past couple of years. "It takes several months, minimally, for enterprises to adopt, pilot, and certify new technology," says Colin Murphy, principal RFID product manager at Intermec. "With the new Gen2 standard, manufacturers had to recertify their solutions with the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to ensure they were using the correct radio frequencies with the appropriate power levels; plus, many manufacturers worked with EPCglobal to perform interoperability testing. Now, we're starting to see the fruits of their efforts."
In the March 2008 issue of Integrated Solutions magazine, we profiled $104 billion manufacturer HP, which is using item-level tagging of products manufactured at its Brazil facility. After upgrading its tags from Gen1 to Gen2, HP experienced an improvement in read rates from 92% to 99%. Even though this is a sign of progress, end users are warned that RFID interoperability is still nowhere near that of bar code labels and printers. "There's a good chance you're going to get burned if you try to save a few bucks and buy your RFID labels off the Internet," warns Rick Bauer, director of RFID global program development at Avery Dennison. "Another big mistake companies sometimes make is to buy RFID software, hardware, and tags from three different vendors and then try to force all three vendors to work together." According to Bauer, many of the RFID problems he encounters stem from these practices. Instead, end users need to find reputable VAR/systems integrator partners that have experience working with hardware and media vendors.
CHIP DESIGN, PLACEMENT LEAD TO IMPROVED READ RATES
Other key factors contributing to improvements with RFID technology are advancements in chip design and a better understanding of how the inlay should be placed on the label. "One noticeable improvement to RFID tags is that the chips and straps are smaller than they used to be," says Murphy. "This factor, combined with advancements in adhesives, has played a key role in the dramatic improvement in RFID label yield."
Previously, label placement was also a problem. "No one knew how to put RFID antennas above or below the area where the printing occurred," says Doug Hall, VP of marketing at Datamax. "A common workaround entailed putting the antenna on the outside of the label, but that proved to be unreliable. Nowadays, printer vendors have figured out how to pull RFID labels through their printers using heated rollers and affixing the antenna just before the label is printed, which dramatically improves read accuracy."
A third design improvement is the use of couplers instead of traditional antennas. "Unlike antennas, which transmit radio signals to work at long ranges, couplers produce a small, focused magnetic field that requires less energy to wake up a tag, and they have fewer interference issues than their antenna counterparts," says Murphy.
One thing end users need to be aware of with couplers, however, is that the introduction of new, more sensitive silicon creates the potential that the amount of energy used to wake up a single tag could potentially affect three or four tags. "It's important for end users to select printers with adjustable power, so end users can regulate how much power is used to energize the tags," says Murphy.
SOFTWARE IMPROVEMENTS SOLVE SILENT TAG ISSUE
Now that RFID printers are being built to support multiple tag formats, it's essential that the software code built into the printers can quickly recognize when a new type of RFID media is loaded into the printer. According to Hall, some printers can take a few minutes to detect new media, load drivers, and prepare to print on the new media. Printers that have multiple tag formats already built-in can make these adjustments in a matter of just a few seconds.
One other problem that plagued RFID implementations in the past was the 'silent' tag, which occurs when a tag is read and approved by the printer, but is unable to be read by readers in the production area. "When a tag is initially read by an RFID printer, the tag and reader are only 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch apart, which is known as a near-field read," says Hall. "In the production area, the tag and reader are typically 1 foot to 10 feet apart, known as the far field. RFID vendors have discovered over the past couple of years that radio waves behave very differently in the near field versus the far field, and as a result, some printer vendors now have additional tag verification steps built into their printers to ensure a tag is good before it's used in production."
For enterprises using RFID in an open-loop manner, it's not always practical to double-read every tag. In this case, the end user can configure its software to create an exception-based procedure that only flags silent tags just before they are shipped to customers. "To make this work, enterprises need designated stations where pallets, cartons, or items can be retagged," says Hall. "This is the only way to ensure the enterprise isn't penalized by a customer such as Wal-Mart for not being in compliance with its RFID mandates."
IS IT TIME FOR YOU TO DEPLOY RFID?
RFID has made clear strides in performance and interoperability over the past couple of years. But, the reality is that there is still room for improvement. That said, what do you do: invest in this technology now or wait? "I've seen prospects that could have realized a four-month payback on an RFID investment put off implementing the technology," says Bauer. "It's foolish to wait until the next RFID show with the newest handheld readers, printers, software, and accessories to invest in RFID. Just like buying a PC, RFID is an iterative process that's constantly being improved. If you can make the business case for deploying it now, do it now."
Who are some candidates that should consider implementing it now? According to Bauer, manufacturers experiencing product losses (this was HP's motive), retailers, or any company with the need for improved security/access control should consider implementing RFID. If your company falls into any of these categories, don't you think it's time to consider removing RFID from your 'wait and see' list?