Magazine Article | April 1, 2003

The Intrigue Of The RFID Smart Label

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

They're printed just like bar code labels. But can smart labels jump-start the stalled progress of this data collection technology?

Integrated Solutions, April 2003

These days, when talking about data collection technologies, undoubtedly the subject of RFID (radio frequency identification) will come up. It's not likely, though, that you'll hear anything so new or revolutionary it will cause you to run out and place an order for a million RFID tags. Nevertheless, this is a technology everyone agrees will eventually be as ubiquitous as its relative, the bar code. The key word, of course, is eventually.

What the RFID industry lacks is a catalyst. Someone or some company has to light the fuse that will start the RFID explosion. So far, no one seems to have the firepower. One company many insiders believe has this kind of clout is Wal-Mart. Naturally if the mega-retailer implemented a compliance RFID tagging initiative, many other large and small corporations would take notice and follow suit. It would be the RFID industry's nirvana - a massive open RFID system. According to AMR Research Analyst Cate Quirk, Wal-Mart is currently only conducting field trials on the effectiveness of RFID technology. So, the wait continues.

But despite the technology's high costs (as compared to bar codes) and the lack of standards, RFID continues to infiltrate companies of all sizes. According to Allied Business Intelligence (ABI), the number of RFID tags (i.e. transponders) shipped is expected to grow from 323 million in 2002 to 1.62 billion in 2007. The use of RFID tags for supply chain applications is also supposed to grow from 1% in 2001 to 46% in 2007.

Smart Label Printers Evolve
ABI attributes much of RFID's growth to advancements in producing and reading smart labels. Smart labels have embedded 13.56 MHz RFID tags, called inlays. The tags can be reprogrammed multiple times and can be printed just like a bar code label. A smart label's price can vary from 70 cents to $2, depending upon the quantity ordered.

Smart label printers are basically souped up versions of thermal bar code printers. They print bar codes, graphics, and human-readable text, but also have RFID encoders and readers embedded inside. The printers encode and verify in one step, notifying the user if a label wasn't encoded correctly.

In 2000, bar code printer manufacturer Zebra Technologies (Vernon Hills, IL) introduced the R-140, its first RFID printer. The R-140 is basically a Zebra 140XiIII with RFID capabilities. "The R-140 was a market development project for us and was initially targeted for large shipping labels," stated Matt Ream, senior product manager, RFID systems at Zebra. "In fact, we actually started development of the printer before the label converters were making smart labels."

In 2002, Zebra introduced its second RFID printer, the R402. This model was designed for space-constrained environments such as those found in retail, pharmacies, and labs. "This is not an industrial-style printer intended to run all of the time," Ream said. "Instead, it was designed for companies needing to print, for instance, maybe 100 labels a week."

SATO America, Inc. (Charlotte, NC) is another bar code printer manufacturer that recently entered the RFID game. However, SATO took a different approach to adding RFID functionality to its printer line. "In 2002, we released an optional RFID kit for our CL408e and CL412e direct and thermal transfer printers," explained Bob Karr, VP of marketing at SATO. "This component is installed behind the platen roller of the printers and is just like adding another bar code to a printer's firmware."

The impetus for SATO's new RFID initiative came from its European integrators and engineers who had actual applications in need of this technology. Karr admits, though, that opportunities in the United States have been slim so far.

How Can You Use Smart Labels?
The applications for smart labels are limited only by the imagination of the company embracing this technology. The following are some suggestions from SATO and Zebra:

  • Antitheft for libraries, retail, and video stores
  • Asset tracking
  • Baggage tagging
  • Factory automation
  • Healthcare wristbands
  • Pallet tagging
  • Pharmaceuticals tracking
  • Amusement parks/recreational facilities wristbands
  • Manufacturing work-in-process control
  • Inventory control
  • Access control/security
  • Cashless payment

It's Not Just About Buying A Printer
While creating smart labels may seem as easy as using a bar code printer, there's much more to know about this technology to make it successful for any organization. "Smart label printers are only one part of an RFID solution," stated Ream. "Companies still need to become knowledgeable about the readers, software, and the integration."

Karr agrees that RFID education is the key to finding this technology's killer application. He said SATO is currently seeking partners for the scanners/readers and the label media to bolster the company's RFID solution expertise.

"Some people have this idea that RFID is this great panacea for eliminating bar codes," he stated. "They think all RFID applications are like the commercial where the guy stuffs groceries down his pants and walks out of the store with the cashier saying, 'Here's your receipt.' That may be the capability of an active tag system [i.e. tags with batteries and long read ranges], but smart label systems use passive tags."

RFID technology's time will come. After all, there are plenty of killer applications out there right now. All that's needed is a spark.