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Still waiting

July 19, 2005

RFID technology remains an enigma. There have been some encouraging developments, but the soaring rates of growth spoken off in the mid 1990s look as far away as ever. Even the events of last September have failed to expand RFID security usage to any great degree. Despite the appearance of cheaper microchips and relatively more affordable laminating and application methods, high implementation costs remain a formidable barrier. Potential users are also daunted by the problems associated with integrating read/write equipment within existing bar code legacy systems. There is no room for any weak links in individual operations.
The more optimistic of system providers remain confident that the technology’s undoubted benefits will win through. They refer to the fact that RFID labels, tags or tickets can securely carry far more encoded information than is possible with conventional bar codes. The line-of-sight reading rates are faster and users can modify information. This makes smart RFID products perfect for tracking goods within supply chain logistics. Some can help protect against product tampering, counterfeiting and parallel trading, perhaps combined with some secure holographic device. In fact there are countless ID and logistics related applications.
The problem is convincing the key growth markets of these attributes. An example of how frustrating this can be comes from KTP, a leading UK based systems integrator in Beverley, Yorkshire. It has seen two major projects placed on the back burner. More than two years ago British Airways tried smart baggage tags on certain European routes to beef up check-in procedures. KTP’s label division later supplied Baggage Direct with smart products for an airport-to-hotel or -office tracking and delivery service, again using Tag-it disposable tags from Texas Instruments.
“Both schemes were technically successful, but the customers have placed them on hold,” said Harry Clark, KTP’s chairman. He agrees that the market has not taken off as expected: “A lot of initial harm was done by people claiming that smart labels would soon replace bar codes. Smart products can certainly complement them, but may not necessarily replace bar codes. Users must be selective and have the right application.”
It is commonly recognized that the market needs even lower-cost inlay units combined with “interrogation” ranges of at least three feet.
The expense of conventional inductive RFID tags derives from their transmit/receive coil antenna circuit, transponder microchip and a capacitor, which are contained on a thin aluminum foil. The antenna picks up the magnetic energy generated by a reader and modulates it in order to retrieve and transmit data back to the reader, which directs the data to the host computer. Prices can vary anywhere from 30-35 cents per unit for passive button tags to tens of dollars for battery-powered, read-write tags. Further developments could see lower-cost disposable alternatives, similar to the low-cost passive electronic article surveillance types for retail anti-theft labeling.

Production factors
Other positive moves include the setting up of dedicated suppliers. For example, UPM-Kymmene Rafsec (a sister company of Raflatac) now supplies reels of transponder inlays based on Philips Semiconductors I Code IC chip to converters and system integrators. It uses Rafsec’s own antenna on a thin polyester carrier, a permanent adhesive on the back and a laminate to protect the top of the inlay. In Germany, X-ident produces a range of RFID label, tag and ticket materials for converting into process printed or thermally-printed materials. Usage by mass transit authorities is seen as a key sector.
New methods of merging inlay webs with pre-printed label or tag webs while maintaining register and eliminating static look promising. Bielomatik’s latest Qualified Manufacturing Process system includes a compact transponder coding and transfer machine aimed at label converters. The machine has an unwind for diecut labels and another for reels of transponder inlays, which are tested as they unwind.
Melzer offers the entry-level SL-L 100 for single-track production. Higher-volume production is handled by the SL-L 400, giving up to four track production over the 250-mm width for 30-40,000 labels/hour. It also has a test facility. Both machines incorporate diecutting, trim removal and rewinder.
The Burton Group’s Omega Systems division offers the TI 410 line to handle multiple webs, applying inlays onto double-sided webs using an adapted label dispenser with integral diecutting. The TI 150 is a simpler and narrower version, handling webs up to 150mm. Omega supplied KTP’s customized machine with a verifier to run in-line with its multi-color label press.
Van den Bergh Engineering from Belgium has released its iLi-250 module, intended to apply inlays between a release liner and self-adhesive facestock or with split piggy-back labels. The 250mm-wide applicator includes a laminator and hot-melt gluer. It runs in tandem with the Labeller 18S, part of the company’s Inter Label Combination system for integrating diecut labels with forms or similar documents.
Equipment of the type mentioned is a vital step in the right direction because at least it provides a platform of involvement for specialized label converters. Perhaps it will eventually reduce the gap between the capabilities of RFID technology and the market’s attitudes towards it.
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