RFID
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Researchers unveil antenna free RFID tags; will open more markets for on-metal apps

Tremendous progress has been made when it comes to the ability of RFID technology to work on metal and with liquids. Companies like Xerafy and Omni-ID have taken the mystery out of on-metal tagging, and RFID-based solutions are common in aerospace, medical, automotive and many other industries.

The development of an antenna-less RFID tag by researchers at North Dakota State University could take tagging of metals and liquids to a higher level by making it more affordable and effective to tag products in these categories.

Officials at NDSU are in the early stages of speaking with potential partners to commercialize the solution, which could occur as early as next year.

“The main thing to consider here is that you are removing the antenna so you are saving that cost as part of the finished transponder,” says Mike Liard, RFID analyst at VDC Research. “And they are mitigating RF interference issues associated with metal and liquids by removing the antenna. This technology could then be shared or licensed to vendors that may be able to produce tags in new ways and open up new markets for the technology.”

Traditional RFID tags consist of an integrated circuit (IC) and an antenna. While big strides have been made when it comes to eliminating interference, it can still be difficult to find tags that perform well on metal objects or on containers filled with liquid. Previous attempts to solve this problem have resulted in bulky tags that are sometimes destroyed by routine handling.

Researchers at the NDSU Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering have developed a patent-pending approach, where an antenna less RFID tag allows for an inexpensive product tracking solution that meets EPCglobal® standards.

“Most RFID tags that are to be used on metal objects are made by placing an antenna on a spacer, making them between 0.5 and 3 cm thick, depending on the type of tag,” says Cherish Bauer-Reich, a research engineer on the NDSU team. “Such tags can be easily damaged because they stick out so far. The tags developed by NDSU CNSE are less than 3 mm thick and are placed directly on the metal, or could be recessed into the surface of a metal container.”

Bauer-Reich explains that the tags her team has developed actually use the metal container as an antenna, rather than having to make and place another antenna on top of the container.

“We were working on some other projects that involved trying to put tags on metal containers and through this research discovered that previous research overlooked an obvious source of the antenna, which is the container,” says Bauer-Reich. “So we came up with the idea of utilizing the container instead of working against it.”

She says that while many types of tags have to be spaced away from metal — since it changes the electromagnetic fields around the tags and destroys their ability to communicate – the newly developed tags use the metal container as the antenna to transmit information. Because of this unique property, the tags can be used to tag anything from coffee cans at a grocery store to barrels of oil or metal cargo containers, with minimal concern about losing or damaging the tag.

Aaron Reinholz, associate director for electronics technology, Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) at North Dakota State University, says that there are a number of large niche markets where antenna less tags could be useful. He sites the oil and gas industry, and attaching tags to metal pipes and other drilling equipment used in the mining industry. IT asset tracking, which has gained a strong foothold with UHF tags, could be another market for the new tags.

“Anything with a metal case would be ideal,” says Reinholz, “including instrumentation tools or tracking of smaller cargo containers. If it could be generated cheap enough, it’s possible to go down to the item level and start tagging things like coffee cans.”

Before the new technology can be commercialized, it will likely have to become even smaller than the current form factor. The NDSU research team has set its hopes on altering the technology enough to the point where it can become a paper thin and embedded on containers. In addition, changes in design will make the tags effective for more applications.

“Right now the substrate material is rigid, and it would improve the market potential if we could move forward with more of flexible substrate,” says Reinholz. “In order to make it work better and use it on a lot more materials, we’d like to make it flexible and very thin.”

The staff at NDSU is in the early stages of contacting potential partners to help commercialize the tags. Since the NDSU is a state-funded research center, it does not have a manufacturing facility. The likely options include licensing the technology to an RFID vendor, or accepting a sponsored research agreement that benefits the research team.

One thing is certain. The antenna less tags will remain a niche solution for on-metal applications where it makes sense. They likely won’t be used for tagging boxes in typical inventory management solutions. Reinholz says it’s still too early to determine tag pricing.

“I don’t think these tags will ever be able compete with commodity tags from places like Avery Dennison or Alien,” he says . “The material costs there are quite a bit lower than I think we could ever be able to get to with these tags, just because we’re probably going to have some other unique materials that may not be as cheap as nylon, for example.”

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