Four hundred people attended IDTechEx’s annual Smart Labels USA conference in Boston, MA, USA in February. The conference focused on RFID technology: its history, where it is today and future predictions. Representatives from industries including retail, manufacturing and logistics, postal, military and security, healthcare and pharmaceutical, and aviation shared their experiences and ideas about RFID.
Peter Harrop of IDTechEx opened the conference with an overview of RFID, including findings from the consulting company. Although RFID growth in 2006 did not meet company predictions, Harrop is still optimistic that the technology will become increasingly common. He said China is currently spending more on RFID than any other country. China’s national identification cards and upcoming 2008 Olympics are two reasons for an increase in RFID spending that Harrop cited.
End users were represented at the smart label event. Michael Okoroafor, technology director at Coca-Cola, spoke about his company’s view of RFID. He talked about some of the challenges for the beverage industry in particular, saying cost, technology performance and lack of standards have been challenging for Coca-Cola. He pointed out that tags costing 50 cents are too expensive to be considered at the item level, which is where he believes RFID technology will be going.
Zachary Thom, RFID analyst for Unilever, agreed that RFID cost is currently prohibitive at the item level. He talked about the need for global standards before mass adoption can occur with a company like Unilever that serves consumers worldwide. Thom also said using RFID with heavy, dense liquids has been challenging.
RFID doesn’t only have to be for consumer products. Jason Freebern, Location Aware Safety System (LASS) project manager for BP, discussed the safety applications associated with RFID use. In emergencies, RFID badges worn by employees can provide quicker and more accurate data than manual checklists to determine which workers were able to leave a building during an emergency such as a fire.
Pharmaceuticals is one area in which item level RFID has been put into practice. Harry Ramsey, senior package development engineer for Purdue Pharma, spoke about his company’s use of the technology. He said that Purdue Pharma first got involved with RFID because of the Wal-Mart mandates and was the first company to deliver integrated RFID at the item level in December 2004. For 2007, the company is moving to Gen 2 for item level and case level tagging and is looking to scale up its RFID use.
Purdue Pharma has a partnership with the converter George Schmitt & Co. The partnership originally came from a security need, but the converter now plays a large roll in Purdue Pharma’s RFID needs. Peter Moore, of George Schmitt & Co., spoke about RFID from the converter’s standpoint. George Schmitt & Co. designs and builds most of its equipment. Its software is also custom designed. To test the tags, Moore says each tag is read four to six times during the production process. If it fails one of those reads, it’s taken out. He says the company’s testers run anywhere from 10 tags per second to 350 fpm.
Moore discussed converting challenges with RFID. Introducing electronics into the printing process can cause problems in certain instances. Electrostatic discharge (ESD) needs to be addressed, understanding the physics of RFID is important, programming readers needs to take place, and learning new systems (such as going from Gen 1 to Gen 2) is essential.
Other healthcare related applications for RFID can be found in hospitals. Ben Sperling, director of RFID programs for McKesson, a company that provides healthcare products, talked about McKesson’s use of the technology. The company uses RFID in hospitals for a variety of purposes. Sperling described some applications. McKesson used RFID to track IV pumps that were going missing from a specific hospital. It also used the technology to verify that the proper medication was being dispensed to patients.
Printing the antennas
Conductive ink was a big topic of discussion at Smart Labels USA. Some believe the use of conductive inks will replace the current method of attaching a pre-assembled transponder into a label. Richard Morris, of Parelec, a conductive ink manufacturer, spoke about how printed electronics can lower costs since it is printed directly onto the package or label. He said silver is currently the only metal with an acceptable read range and performance. With flexo printing, Morris said the plates can be an issue because they are not equipped to handle conductive inks. He expects more flexo use in the future, however. Rotary screen printing lends itself more to printing conductive inks, but gravure is the printing process to take off with conductive inks, according to Morris. He said with gravure, printers only need one pass to apply the conductive inks.
Jeroen van Nunen, product manager for Meco, a company that manufactures and supplies plating systems, said that silver ink antennas have a high cost and the additive copper process is cheaper than silver ink.
Jeff Parker, application supervisor for Acheson Colloids, a designer and manufacturer of high performance polymers, said antenna inks have to be application friendly, be able to last, be cost competitive, and be compatible with a wide range of adhesives. He pointed out that solvent inks are more conductive than water based inks. He said proper ink management is essential to achieving performance and cost objectives. Certain inks require inline viscosity monitoring and maintenance, according to Parker. Acheson performs several tests at its facility, including heat and humidity tests, flexibility tests and adhesion/cohesion tests.
Gerald Steinwasser, general manager for Mühlbauer, a machine supplier, talked about the company’s smart label converting machine options. He said that in North America, there is an equally divided mix of wide and narrow web. On the narrow web side, Mühlbauer offers its CL15000 converting machine for production of RFID labels.
Max Golter, vice president of sales at bielomatik, another machinery company, spoke about two options for label converters making RFID labels: getting transponders from suppliers or using conductive inks. He called the conductive ink option the “do it yourself” transponder, since the transponder is directly printed by the converter. Golter points out that using conductive inks makes converters more than just label manufacturers because they need to do more technical processes, such as build circuits.
One piece of advice Golter had for converters involved with RFID is to keep the label printing separate from the insertion of the transponder. That way, converters won’t have to throw out good transponders because of a bad label. He suggested doing everything on press for the label and then making it smart by adding in the transponder after the label is finished.
While at the event, TAGSYS, a company involved specifically with item level RFID, announced a software suite called e-connectware designed to manage global RFID networks. The company says the e-connectware platform is a comprehensive set of management and administrative tools that delivers high quality service levels to ensure data accuracy and data integrity in item level tagging. l