Tag selection is one of the first stages in planning an RFID project, and historically, one of the most time-consuming, due to the large number of options available. Fortunately, RFID standards have evolved along with the technology in the past couple of years, making tag selection far more straightforward. Here are five considerations to keep your planning process on track, based on recent RFID projects we’ve been involved with.
What’s Being Tagged
With nearly a hundred deployments between the two of us, we have tagged items as diverse as perishable foods, aircraft components, denim, cosmetics, transport vehicles, shipping boxes, footwear, and pharmaceuticals. Certain materials used to require specialized or custom tags. Today, you’re more likely to find an off the shelf tag for the product you’re tagging, or even a tag that is suitable for a wide range of materials.
Standards organizations such as the ARC – RFID Lab of Auburn University, GS1 and the EECC have dramatically improved testing and certification for RFID tags. For example, retailers and apparel manufacturers can now purchase certified “Category M” tags which are certified for use on apparel and footwear. Luxury goods may employ tamper-proof tags that work with a loss prevention system. Supply chain projects may print and encode RFID tags on demand, then apply them directly to corrugated boxes, pallets and shipping containers. Industrial firms may use flexible tags for curved surfaces or high-memory tags for storing maintenance history directly on capital equipment.
A simple way to look at it is, does the item you’re tracking already have a barcode or a loss prevention device, and if so, how is it attached? Is it a label or hanging tag? Is it branded or does it contain usage instructions? Is it printed, etched, bolted, embedded or sewn into the product? It’s likely that an RFID tag would be integrated in a similar way. We’re working with a tag manufacturer who is replacing product nameplates and barcodes with a three-in-one solution that integrates barcode, human readable part marking and RFID data in a single tag.
Where it’s Being Tracked
Environmental conditions used to play a greater role in tag selection, but now that RFID is commonplace in retail stores, shipping docks, hospitals, factories, trailer yards, underground drilling and even depressurized areas of an in-service aircraft, there are plenty of tag options that are designed for outdoor use in a wide range of weather conditions, even ones that can be safely used with volatile materials.
The environmental factors we encounter today have more to do with how densely the products are packed, and how they are used, such as hundreds of DVDs stored in a single drawer, or cosmetics displayed on peg hooks. Industrial manufacturing may require short read ranges for tracking work-in-process, and long read ranges for yard management. We recently developed a 12mm x 12mm RFID tag with a very short read range for cosmetics and other densely packed merchandise.
Tagging and Encoding Processes
In high volume applications (such as in retail and consumer goods), item-level tagging is an automated process at source manufacturing or in distribution centers. It also makes sense to handle tag encoding in the same fashion, to enable centralized number management and consistent quality assurance. Several of our customers purchase pre-encoded tags in or deploy bulk commissioning stations to read, encode and verify item-level data while products are being manufactured or kitted for shipment to their final destination.
For lower volume applications, RFID commissioning tables and handhelds are used for tag encoding or RFID printers are used to print and encode labels in a single step. Hiring an outside service or purchasing pre-encoded tags are other ways of simplifying the encoding process, regardless of tagging volumes.
RFID tags can range from under 10 cents to more than $60 each. High volumes in retail deployments have brought passive RFID labels down to a few cents, whereas specialized tags for rugged applications and active tags provide additional functionality at a higher price point.
Regardless of application, tag cost should not be gating factor for an RFID project, since higher priced tags are generally designed to track and protect higher value items. Tags used for capital asset management can last for decades, and some are designed to store maintenance history for the life of the asset. Retailers who tag items for loss prevention can replace their current EAS tags with dual RFID-EAS tags that provide theft deterrence and inventory management in a single tag. Dual RFID-EAS hard tags are reusable, providing even greater cost savings. Standardizing on a few tags versus purchasing different tags for each product/asset category can provide better quantity discounts and simplify the sourcing and testing process.
Tags are part of the overall RFID solution, and tag selection needs to align to the business case. Once you understand what needs to be tracked, and where, suitable tags quickly narrow down to a short list of options. The short list of tags can then be evaluated and tested in the environment that they will be used in. This will determine the best ways to attach, encode and glean data from RFID tags in your operation.
As the market matures, tag selection is becoming faster and simpler. Although tags are tangible items, the tangible results of an RFID deployment lie in the data from the tags themselves. Spending time to define and validate the key performance metrics and business value of RFID will help ensure a successful deployment.
Umesh Cooduvalli is Sr. Director of Product Management for RFID Consumables at Checkpoint Systems, and is responsible for the company’s global RFID consumables business. He has been involved in numerous RFID chain-wide deployments across multiple industries, from strategic partnerships with Chip manufacturers, inlay production, and deployment through service bureaus.
Chris Forgione is Director of Asset Tracking at OATSystems, a division of Checkpoint Systems. Chris has served as a systems integrator and trusted advisor for over 50 RFID supply chain, manufacturing and logistics deployments, in Aerospace, Healthcare, Oil & Gas and Industrial Manufacturing.