Making smart choices in uncertain times

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Many companies that are responding to customer radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging requirements are surprised to learn they have a choice of RFID technologies to provide. They could receive another, negative surprise later if they do not make a wise choice. Organizations can set the foundation for an efficient RFID technology migration by understanding their options for standards, data structures and equipment. This article will explain some RFID technology selection issues for compliance tagging.

Some organizations that have announced supplier tagging requirements will accept multiple types of RFID tags early in their programmes while standards and product supply issues are still being worked out. Eventually this flexibility will give way to firm requirements for specific technologythe EPC Class 1 Generation 2 (also called C1G2, or Gen 2) specification is a leading candidate. Until standards and requirements clarify, suppliers must choose a technology to support.

many suppliers will need to have their compliance-tagging systems in place before compliant Class 1 Generation 2 products are available.

Standard stalemate
The EPC Class 1 Generation 2 specification was developed specifically to solve limitations of other RFID technologies (including Class 1 Generation 1) for international supply chain use. Several organizations have already announced they will require their suppliers to provide C1G2 tags on shipments after the standard is ratified, and are requiring other forms of RFID until then. However, C1G2 ratification has been delayed, and many suppliers will need to have their compliance-tagging systems in place before compliant Class 1 Generation 2 products are available. This means companies implement a short-term compliance solution and make plans to migrate to EPC C1G2 technology.

Here are some recommendations for developing RFID systems to meet compliance tagging requirements.

1. Use 96-bit data structures
Memory size is of the most important differences in Generation 1 and Generation 2 EPC Class 1 tag specifications. The earlier specification called for a unique 64-bit identifier, which proved to be insufficient when the technology was used in real-world trials. The user community asked for more memory, resulting in the Gen 2 specification for at least 96 bits and up to 256 bits of memory. The use of 96-bit identifiers has gained support among early adopters and has been written into several compliance requirements.

it makes little sense to ever deploy 64-bit tags in a system when 96-bit tags are available.

Software redevelopment expenses for converting 64-bit EPC tag applications to process 96-bit EPC tags will generally cost much more than any savings produced from using lower-cost tags in the pilot. Class 1 tags with 96-bit memory are commercially available, and a 96-bit identifier can also be encoded into ISO 18000-standard RFID tags. Therefore, it makes little sense to ever deploy 64-bit tags in a system when 96-bit tags are available. Using the same data structure for preliminary and compliant systems is the single most important aspect that will impact the cost and complexity of migration to Class 1 Generation 2 technology.

2. Start before the standards process ends
Gain experience with 96-bit Class or ISO 18000-standard tags and equipment that are available now and do not wait for C1G2 issues to be finalized. Organizations must learn how to encode, print and read smart labels; where to place these tags on cartons and pallets; determine optimum reader and antenna configurations for more consistent reading performance, integrate data into business processes and IT systems, solve interference challenges to ensure tags are readable. Much of the knowledge necessary to meet these requirements with C1G2 tags can be gained by working with comparable technologies.

it makes little sense to ever deploy 64-bit tags in a system when 96-bit tags are available.

3. Assess equipment upgrade ability
The effort and expense of upgrading EPC printer/encoders and readers to support the Gen 2 tags is an important consideration and potential differentiator among products from competing equipment suppliers. Organizations should understand the migration strategy and upgrade policies of their equipment vendors. Typically this sort of information will be gleaned by the customer through a formal request for information (RFI) or request for proposal (RFP) document and questionnaire.

The decision on what RFID technologies, specifications and standards to support will have a major impact on the expense, value and return on investment the system provides. Some RFID protocols and products available today offer a clear migration path to future technologies, while others may result in a need for significant application redevelopment and equipment replacement. Understanding long-term partner, business process and system requirements will put you on the path to smooth migration.


Bernard Williams is Zebra Technologies' RFID Business Development Manager for Europe Middle East and Africa. He also sits on the Metro Solutions team involved with the development and testing of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology for the retail supply chain. He has worked for Zebra over the past seven years holding posts as UK Sales Manager and European Business Development Manager. He was previously the Director of Sales at Eltron International for Europe, the pioneers of entry-level barcode printers for the European market. Williams is a qualified mechanical engineer and spent a decade in the production equipment-manufacturing sector both in the UK and Europe with Domino Printing Sciences PLC developing new business solutions for the production environment.

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