RFID: The Hidden Process Hiccups

Jan. 1, 2005
RFID costs are hidden in the perfomance promises of the printer/applicator suppliers.

The bad news is that RFID printer/applicator suppliers are assuring us that their equipment will reject bad RFID tags and apply only good ones to a package.

Wait...that's bad news? Yup, you betcha. Why? Well, that's somewhat complicated.

By now, everyone has heard the RFID gurus insist that the real benefits of RFID will come from process changes enabled or even required by implementing the technology. That promise is supposed to give everyone a warm, fuzzy feeling that, if they look at their internal operations and trading partner relationships hard enough, everything will turn out fine (although the process changes themselves will probably offer some less-than-warm-and-fuzzy moments).

Some companies have already begun looking at those processes to see where they can achieve something resembling an ROI (and, in fact, it can be found). Others aren't particularly enthusiastic about those less-thanwarmand-fuzzy moments and have decided to adopt a slap-and-ship approach until they better understand the technology and its requirements.

Whichever approach you might be contemplating, there are going to be some process changes.

For low volume operations, you're obviously going to need a new labeling line or shipping area where the RFID tag is applied—either manually or automatically. That's a relatively small process change but, in some facilities, finding that space may be a challenge.

For high volume applications, however, it gets considerably more complicated.

Here's where the bad news comes in. What the gurus don't say is that some of the process changes required by RFID are hidden in the performance promise of the printer/applicator suppliers. To understand why it's bad news, we have to look at how RFID printer/ applicators work.

RFID printer/applicators are being configured to verify the presence of a live tag, erase the data, write data, verify proper encodation, then print the bar code (if any) on the label. If the encoder detects a dead tag, either prior to encoding or after, it rejects the tag and encodes another one. This process can take from half a second to upwards of two seconds.

Given the current failure rate of RFID tags, as high as 20%, as much as one-fifth of the packages on your high-speed labeling line may have to wait for a new label. In other words, you may have to slow down or redesign your labeling line to accommodate cartons backing up while they wait for another tag to be printed.

On the other hand, you can allow the dead tags to be applied and send those cartons to a recirculation lane to be relabeled. That allows you to keep your line speed up but, in some respects, it will slow you down just as much as waiting for the encoder/applicator to produce a new tag. And, it means that you will probably have to significantly extend your recirculation lane to accommodate up to 20% of your volume.

Now, the good news is that there are companies that provide, for a higher price of course, reels of 100%-verified live RFID tags. Pre-verified tags can address that part of the problem—if you're willing to pay the premium.

So, even the good news isn't all that great.

But dead tags are only part of the problem.

There's the phenomenon of "quiet" tags—that is, tags that read perfectly well when positioned next to the printer/encoder head but that don't read from any appreciable distance. These tags currently can't be detected prior to application.

Sometimes, the process of printing and applying tags causes antenna leads to break or weaken. Other times, it's not clear why they're such underperformers.

Most integrators and many of the encoder/ applicator companies include a post-labeling reader to catch this problem. There are no good figures on how many "quiet" tags you're likely to see, but they just add to the dead tags you might have. These cartons will have to go into your recirculation lane to get a new label and, again, that may require increasing its capacity to handle the increased volume.

Now, the almost-good-news: this is a temporary situation. Tag quality is steadily improving and several novel approaches are being employed by printer manufacturers to ensure that the process of encoding the tag doesn't damage it. It's only "almost good news" because it doesn't lessen the short-term impact RFID labeling will have on your labeling line.

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