Richard Ulrich, a member of Wal-Mart Stores RFID Strategy Team, said he believes there are definite benefits to be had from item-level tagging—particularly in streamlining checkout processes.
He also said he believes those efficiencies will be significantly delayed unless a global standard is agreed upon.
“What is required in the supply chain?” Ulrich asked, during a March 29 Web seminar hosted by RFID Journal. “A low-cost RFID [radio-frequency identification] solution—thats key, especially at the item level. To get there we need economies of scale … The only way to do that is to get to one standard that supports multiple use cases—that [can] read at a distance for case and pallet, and close proximity for item level.”
The battle, at this point, is playing out around tag and reader frequencies: HF (High Frequency) versus UHF (Ultra High Frequency).
There are some vendors, like ODIN Technologies, in Dulles, Va., a company that provides RFID infrastructure software, deployment services and lab testing, which point to HF as the best choice for pharmaceutical tagging—a prime example of an industry that looks to heavily utilize item-level tagging.
Then there are those like Chris Diorio, chairman, founder and vice president of RFID engineering for Impinj, which has offices in Seattle and Newport Beach, Calif., and Ian Forster, technical director of RFID at Avery Dennison, in Pasadena, Calif. Both executives are clearly in the UHF camp (both companies manufacture UHF tags and readers).
UHF is based on the Gen 2 standard, ratified by EPCGlobal last year. Tags and readers incorporating Gen 2 are just coming to market this year.
The issue is that with different industries—and sometimes even different customers in the same industry—requiring either HF or UHF tags, suppliers find themselves faced with the problem of implementing separate infrastructures to support both.
“Total cost of ownership [is key],” Wal-Marts Ulrich said. “Currently certain DVD suppliers have to remain on two infrastructures, with two different standards. We dont want to be in that situation. Standards should help us all. You cant get to item level unless you get to low cost. It may be a ways down the road, but the steps we take today [are what] gets us there—either moves us forward or delays us.”
Ulrich said the first thing people in different industries need to keep in mind is that the supply chain is global. “There is a shared ecosystem with a lot of industry lines—where does pharmaceutical stop and health and beauty begin? Its an unclear line, and its very important that the decisions that are made are made for an entire industry,” he said.
Despite Wal-Mart, headquartered in Bentonville, Ark., being a clear leader in determining RFID proliferation, Ulrich does not want to see a scenario where the company is defining a standard for others in the industry to follow, he said. “If we make a decision, because of spill-over [into other industries], there is a potential [for Wal-Mart to] put undue pressure on suppliers,” he said.
That said, Wal-Mart is decidedly in the UHF camp.
UHF Myths vs
Given the relative newness of Gen 2, there are a lot of myths surrounding what UHF can and cant do, according to Impinjs Diorio. There are those who say HF works better for different materials—water or metal—and those who say UHF will work just fine.
“Many of you have heard the conventional wisdom that UHF doesnt work in liquids, that UHF tags dont fit [smaller items], that UHF doesnt work on metals, that you cant stack UHF,” Diorio said during the RFID Journal Web seminar. “Conventional wisdom is wrong.”
Diorio addressed the physics of UHF and of something defined as far-field (for example, 10 feet) and near-field (1 foot) tagging. UHF use in far-field tagging is relatively standard technology, whereas UHF in near-field tagging is emerging technology.
The key concept to take away, according to Diorio, is that because near field attenuates rapidly, HF really only works in near field, while UHF works in both near and far field. “For a tag thats a foot away, it works great,” Diorio said. “For a tag thats 10 feet away it works great.”
Diorio said Impinj tested UHF near-field tags in bottles of shampoo, lotion, even Gatorade—not on the bottle, but in the bottle—and found the tags were readable. The company also found the tags werent susceptible to too much noise or to space considerations like being stacked, and they worked on metal—after a little tweaking.
As for item size constraints, Avery Dennison developed small tags that work on vials of drugs, either on the top or bottom, which were also readable, according to Avery Dennisons Forster.
“Gen 2 delivers performance upgrades,” Forster said. “We can put UHF energy precisely where we need it, which gives us excellent control of when and where reads are and eliminates interference.”
UHF can also impact tag costs, according to Diorio.
“In UH every little coil of wire delivers a voltage and there needs to be a lot of coil to generate a voltage,” Diorio said. “UHF is a single loop—one turn, one layer. You dont have to worry about turn resistance, so tag costs with UHF will always be lower.”
UHF as a standard, however, has its detractors.
ODINs benchmark study, released March 29, developed in conjunction with Unisys and pharmaceutical manufacturers, points to HF as the more appropriate technology for pharmaceutical tagging.
“HF wins in this round in the battle of the frequencies by a technical knockout,” said Patrick J. Sweeney Jr., president and CEO of ODIN. “We dont particularly care who wins these battles. What we care about is what works best for our clients—Wal-Mart, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Colgate, Kraft.”
The reason ODIN undertook the study, according to Sweeney, is that he saw RFID adoption in the pharmaceutical industry stagnating, with people unable to decide whether they should invest in HF or UHF.
HF may just win out.
“This may be one instance where the Food & Drug Administration will actually trump Wal-Mart,” said Sweeney, who noted that the FDA wants pharmaceutical companies to use RFID by 2007. “Wal-Mart is very desirous of a single infrastructure, which with UHF you get very close to. But the FDA still has many concerns around UHF. Theyre afraid [the energy from a reader] will do to vaccines and medicines what a microwave would do to a cup of coffee.”
Sweeney said he does believe that UHF holds great promise for the retail supply chain, particularly as the cost of near-field tags gets cheaper.
“UHF is clearly where the [future of] large volume tags is going to be,” Sweeney said.