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Going for the Gold With RFID Labels at the Olympics

RFID continues to impress the judges
By Elise Hacking, Print Professional Magazine

September 1, 2008

RFID smart labelsMichael Phelps wasn’t the only headline maker at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. In fact, the arguable unsung hero of the games, ensuring attendees from around the globe were able to cheer on their respective homeland, was a mere 0.3 square millimeter chip boasting 50 microns in thickness. It is known in the industry as the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip.

According to the Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission, more than 16 million tickets were embedded with RFID chips, marking the technology’s first-ever appearance in the Olympic Games. The goal: to prevent the occurrence of counterfeit door tickets, thereby simplifying the event ticket checking procedure. The chip stored valuable information such as when and where a ticket was purchased and where the actual seat was located. Nothing more, nothing less—despite the Big Brother stigma that occasionally haunts RFID chips.

But, in the end, all the hype about privacy issues may be for naught. Tom Michalsen, director of marketing for Weber Marking Systems, Arlington Heights, Ill., has read about RFID privacy issues, although he’s yet to work with a customer expressing concern. “I’m not going to worry about privacy until they decide they’re going to implant a chip in my forearm to track where I’m going every second,” he joked.

Maggie Bidlingmaier, director of sales and marketing for the RFID Division of Pasadena, California-based Avery Dennison, took a similar position. “I do not think that privacy issues will ultimately be a problem for RFID. It is normal for consumers to have questions when there is a lack of education and understanding of [how] the technology [works],” she said. “Once the consumers understand that there is a benefit associated with it, they will accept it just like other technology adoptions historically. I always tell people that the retailer will know far more about their consumer tendencies by the usage of their credit card than they ever will with RFID tags.”

Bidlingmaier did say, however, there are some privacy matters currently in need of attention and further investigation. The Gen2 protocol was initially a major achievement in quieting previous RFID privacy concerns, and features are currently under consideration to prohibit unauthorized access or tampering.

Nevertheless, anti-counterfeit tactics are far from the only hint of progress being made with this technology. Since the inception of Avery Dennison’s RFID division in 2004, few aspects of the business today resemble the past. Bidlingmaier recalled back then the division consisted of a lineup of UHF RFID inlays primarily targeting the carton-and-pallet market created by Wal-Mart. Now, the RFID division’s product portfolio contains more than a dozen items used around the world in a variety of applications, including internal and external supply chain, pharmaceutical, aviation, retail apparel and other asset tracking applications.

In particular, Avery Dennison is enjoying the success from rapid growth and movement in the apparel sector. “It is the largest market vertical in terms of volume in RFID tags today, and it has the strongest growth outlook moving forward,” Bidlingmaier commented.

The Fortune 500 company recently moved to an aluminum antenna construction and manufacturing process it finds more cost-effective and eco-conscious than copper or silver ink antenna offerings. In addition, to speed up manufacturing procedures Avery Dennison invests in state-of-the-art equipment.

Said Bidlingmaier, “High-speed strap attach is the foundation of our inlay manufacturing process and is unique in its ability to meet the high-volume demands of the long-term market. To complement these speed and throughput gains during manufacturing is our inline test capability, which tests every inlay during manufacturing to ensure it meets our targeted performance requirements.”

Weber Marking Systems has seen constant growth, as well—anywhere from 25 percent to 45 percent each year—with its RFID business throughout the last three to four years. Closed-loop applications are specifically hot at the moment for the company, and the food and beverage market continues to gain momentum with RFID advances.

Michalsen also believes people will see more benefits from RFID in the pharmaceutical industry. He admitted some companies remain reluctant due to standardization issues in this market. “I think there’s been a debate going on about which frequency is going to be utilized. Is it going to be HF? Is it going to be UHF? Is it going to be a combination? There’s still work being done on trying to standardize that. And until that happens, I don’t think companies are going to be so willing to commit to infrastructure and all the things they need to make it work in their system. But it’s coming and that’s really what’s going to be the next necessary step for RFID to really become cost effective,” he said.

Michalsen went on to say Weber and other label marketers are looking for solutions. “As things progress to the unit level, which they ultimately will, whether it be through retail or club stores or through pharma[ceutical], you have to make sure your insertion system that you’re going to invest in—and there’s a few of them out there—that it’s going to be compatible with your four-color process prime label printing,” he recommended. “It has to be beyond just a blank label that’s done today that’s being variably printed. You’re going to need to be able to incorporate again your fine printing processes with RFID insertion.”

Companies willing to take a chance on RFID must realize the implementation process isn’t without hard work. Michalsen stressed, “There’s a lot to learn. The potential users need to do some homework on printers and encoders. What type of reader do they need? Can they automate the process? Can it be a printer applicator encoder? ... Learn about the different inlays and what applications are suitable for it.”

Bidlingmaier agreed, adding there is no “one-size-fits-all solution.” For instance, sometimes the key to high read rates is the tag; other times, it’s selecting the correct reader and tag combination.

Furthermore, while the product being labeled typically has more of an effect on the RF (radio frequency) performance than the label construction, there are times when face stock and adhesive can affect performance.

“The more ‘tightly tuned’ the inlay, the more effect the label can have on its performance. By ‘tightly tuned’ I mean the inlay has been designed for peak performance in a specified environment. Any deviation from those conditions can adversely affect performance,” she explained. “For example, an inlay might be designed specifically to operate sandwiched in a film or encapsulated for environmental reasons. This same inlay when tested with a paper or cardboard tag or label construction may not perform as well. Or perhaps an inlay has been designed for peak paper-label performance for a particular country’s operating frequency. If the face sheet is changed to a film, it might shift the inlay off frequency and reduce performance.”

Another issue to consider involves item contents. “There are certain metals and liquids and dielectrics that pose particular problems with their ability to absorb or reflect the RF energy or detune the inlay and make it less sensitive. But for clarification, it should be noted that this is not the case for all metals and liquids,” Bidlingmaier indicated. “For example, some non-conductive liquids like oil are actually quite benign and do not pose a problem. Even conductive liquids or high dielectric materials or non-ferrous metals like aluminum can function with RFID by using what is called the magnetic field characteristics of the RF signal. Although limited in range to less than a foot or so, it is quite effective for close proximity item identification.”

Intelligent placement of the tag on the product and a foam-backed label or layered construction label are plausible solutions, as well. Although the latter two will up the price factor.

As is the case with most things, when done right, RFID implementation can accomplish many feats. Avery Dennison’s Atlanta Technology Center (ATC) is one of the few RFID applications engineering centers in the world built around solving customer implementation problems for sometimes challenging applications. Quite often, ATC’s “sweet spot tester” can determine the most suitable location for inlay placement by identifying benign regions within the product to allow an inlay to be read.

Bidlingmaier recounted one unique situation involving pill containers where a customer needed to identify individual items in close proximity to one another, yet still be able to read multiple items when packed in a box. “Here, we designed an inlay that had mostly near-field characteristics when read face on to allow individual identification on their high-speed conveyors, and far-field read characteristics when read edge on for reading 48 containers in the closed box to verify contents at shipping and receiving,” she said.

Something RFID advocates and naysayers can all agree on is the technology isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. Michalsen urged people to embrace RFID technology instead of waiting for retail or compliance requirements (think Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club) to drive business standards. Although companies are finding it hard to justify RFID implementation, especially with slowing sales, the benefits and promise are undeniable.

“It’s a proven technology. It’s fun to learn about. It’s really cool when you see some of the stuff people are doing,” Michalsen enthused. “My dad is a sales manager and he [once told me], ‘My job is to dispel pessimism.’ And you know what, it’s so true. If you can go out there and dispel pessimism and be enthusiastic and show knowledge and a belief in your product, your company will do fine.” PPR

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