In my last column, I wrote about the market pressure to improve Gen 2 UHF tags for use in pharmaceutical labeling. It has since been a busy month for RFID developments, most of which featured challenges to UHF Gen 2 item-level tagging. This was also a month that brought news of Rolling Stone rock star Keith Richards being hospitalized for falling out of a coconut tree following a childish prank. The news from the RFID industry indicates that, like some aging rock stars, RFID technology stubbornly refuses to mature as the years go by. While this may work well for the music industry, it's not good news for RFID supply chain initiatives.
Inclusion Of HF In The Gen 2 Standard Studied
I referred to EPC's technical evaluation of item-level tagging last month. In this "fly-off," various types of RFID tags were used to evaluate their effectiveness for item-level tagging initiatives. The prime movers in the commercial RFID efforts thus far, Wal-Mart and the U.S. DoD, were clearly hoping for data that would show UHF Gen 2 RFID tags as a one-size-fits-all solution (or, in their terminology, a "one-frequency supply chain"). Unfortunately the results were mixed. In the tests, HF technology showed its advantages in applications characterized by liquid products and /or foil packaging.
EPCglobal responded to the developments by issuing a press release. To quote from the release, "High frequency performs well in certain pharmaceutical applications so it makes sense to extend the global reach of Gen 2 to HF." This is the language of a standards organization putting a good face on an ugly physical reality.
Upon its introduction, the intent of the Gen 2 standard was to provide a single framework to support RFID technology throughout the supply chain. The single-frequency goal would provide simplicity, inter-operability, and cost savings for all parties. With this recent development, it is still true that the Gen 2 standard can cover both the UHF and HF technologies -- but the drive for tag inter-operability just got a lot more complicated.
When Is Gen 2 Not Gen 2?
Other recent news includes increasing reference to the need for "Gen 3." Although I could find no official reference to an EPCglobal Gen 3 standard, I did find a statement by EPCglobal that referred to the existing intent to further develop the meaning of "Gen 2 Class 2" tags. So, we then get into semantics about when a standard changes sufficiently to call it a new release.
The increasing concern about Gen 2 tags, even in applications where they perform well in read-rate and accuracy, revolves around the issues of data security, tag encryption, and authentication of tags and readers to each other. These issues are necessarily going to force an evolution of UHF RFID technology. Such technical discussions can be a bit daunting, however, for CIOs who already have millions invested in "Gen 2 Class 1" tags. Therefore, expect an increasing number of news releases on changes to the Gen 2 standard to support emerging security developments, but don't expect anyone in an official capacity to call it "Gen 3."
Finally, we come to a very recent announcement that the IEEE is working on a new protocol for electronic auto-ID. The standard, IEEE 1902.1, has been given the name RuBee. This is proposed as low-frequency active-tag application that will have very high read-rate performance in harsh environments, such as pharmaceutical applications characterized by liquid and foil. The technology is designated low-frequency because it operates in the 450 KHz range, as compared to UHF's frequency range of 900 MHz. The IEEE working group expects the standard to be available within 12 to 18 months. They are backed by some impressive industry partners, including BestBuy, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and CarreFour. They predict RuBee tags that will be comparable in cost to current UHF Gen 2 tags.
The state of the RFID industry now looks very different than it did two months ago. The big challenge then looked like the continued expansion of UHF tagging to the item level, combined with the usual search for a good return on investment. We are now seeing the beginning of serious consideration of application-specific RFID usage, with HF, UHF and new technologies competing for their niche. The next few months will provide interesting technical reading; however, that will not be of much comfort to information executives who were hoping they could finally invest in a mature RFID technology solution for their supply chains.
Paul Faber is a Principal with Raleigh, N.C.-based Tompkins Associates, a supply-chain-solutions consulting firm. As the chief manager of RFID equipment implementation at Tompkins Emerging Technology Center, Faber possesses extensive experience in material handling solutions, systems integration, and installation. He has managed field integration and operations activities at material handling sites around the world.
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