Developments in RFID – An Overview (Part 01)

The direct cause that did decide me to write an article about RFID, was the introduction of CypoPrint, the name BASF in Germany gave to a new range of metal-based inks destined for the production of flexible antennas for RFID tags. Reading that press-release I realized that it had been quite some time that I wrote about radio frequency identification (RFID) in relation to packaging.
It’s quite a story, so I have cut it in three posts.

HF RFID-tag

For my readers who are not familiar with RFID the following: RFID, the abbreviation for radio frequency identification, is a generic term that is used to describe a system that transmits the identity (in the form of a unique serial number) of an object wirelessly, using radio waves. It’s grouped under the broad category of automatic identification technologies.

Auto-ID technologies include bar codes, optical character readers and some biometric technologies. They are used to reduce the amount of time and labour needed to input data manually and to improve data accuracy. In contrast to bar code systems, which often require a person to manually scan a label or tag to capture the data, RFID is designed to enable (handheld or stationary) readers to capture data on tags and transmit it to a computer system without needing a person to be involved.

A typical RFID tag consists of a microchip attached to a radio antenna mounted on a substrate. The chip can store as much as 2 kilobytes of data. For example, information about a product or shipment – date of manufacture, destination and sell-by date.

To retrieve the data stored on an RFID-tag, you need a reader. A typical reader is a device that has one or more antennas that emit radio waves and receive signals back from the tag. The reader then passes the information in digital form to a computer system.

The technology is not new, but in general you can say that the cost of RFID (implementation and execution) has limited its use.

Before we go to the latest developments, let’s have a look how RIFD started in the packaging world. In 2005 I wrote an article about the introduction of RFID by Wal-Mart. Although Wal-Mart was not the only one experimenting with RFID (a.o. Metro did so in Europe) Wal-Mart certainly forced, at an international level, the consumer product companies and with them the packaging industry to look into this problem.

WalMart: EPC/RFID a success or a flop?
The packaging and logistics world has never been speculating so vigorously about a new technology as they did back in 2003 and thereafter in regard to Wal-Mart’s introduction of RFID. Never has a new technology seen so many attempts to kill it before it was even born.
In short, analysts, specialists and technicians were almost unanimously arguing that Wal-Mart’s project had to fail. With statements like: too early, technically too immature, no return on investment, terrorized suppliers, who were confronted with millions for investments without any real chance of revenue, Wal-Mart was characterized as the dominant and delusional tyrant.

Hundreds of articles have been published both on the Internet and in the trade press with the most negative attitude towards the pilot project of Wal-Mart. What was striking, however, was that Wal-Mart hardly defended its position and continued without any comments.
But let’s face it,  with some 1.2 trillion USD in merchandise circulating in the supply chain at any moment in the US alone, is reason enough to seriously experiment with RFID and to seek improvements and applications, that can give savings in the logistics circuit.

Wal-Mart Distribution Center

As a first step to the roughly 100,000 products, which an average Wal-Mart superstore offers, Wal-Mart began in 2003 with 8 suppliers – Gillette, Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark, Kraft Foods, Nestle Purina Petcare, Procter & Gamble and Unilever. By January 2005 an additional 100 major suppliers (plus 37 who voluntarily participated in the pilot) began their RFID-tagged supply to a Wal-Mart distribution centre. Then came the next step of 200 suppliers by January 2006 and finally, by the end of 2006 all Wal-Mart’s US suppliers were involved in the introduction.

It is obvious that EPC/RFID for packaged consumer products, initiated by Wal-Mart, shows all the signs of a long-term success and that the “diviners and seers” have been very. very wrong. RFID has become an essential part of the packaging process, thanks to supermarket chains as Wal-Mart, Metro in Germany and some others around the world.

Of course the initiators started their projects with the most simple implementation of RFID. You can’t blame them, as at that time it already was an impressive challenge to use RFID-tags for pallets and shipping cases. Even if the price of the RFID-tags should have been lower than they were at the time of the pilot-project, the technology to tag (and more importantly data-reading) every single bottle, bag or box just wasn’t available or reliable at that moment.

Now, some 5 years later, the world is talking about putting a RFID-tag on each individual product packaging. Not any longer the pallet or the shipping case, but also each consumer packaging individually. And that’s the real challenge, as RFID-tag placement often impacts the success of tag reads, particularly in the case of individual items. When such items are packed too closely together, the transmission of one tag may interfere with that of another. Inconsistent positioning of tags on packages can also impede reads.

Inside Wal-Mart

It is clear that RFID technology will gain further significance, going far beyond the collecting of supply chain data, by entering the world of anti-counterfeiting, temperature and freshness monitoring and even moving into animated images or advertising jingles.
The majority of new RFID applications will be in labelling. However printed electronics is opening up fascinating new potential, eliminating the necessity of smart labels, as the required RFID-tag can be printed directly on the substrate. In-mould labels have at the back an antenna that is electrically connected to an RFID chip. As well as in-mould labels there are many more options.

Let’s go to part 02 of this overview and walk through some of the most interesting developments of the last couple of years. In chronological order.

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