Over the last few years, a great deal of attention in the radio-frequency identification (RFID) industry has focused on new applications and standards like EPC Gen 2. These days, attention has turned toward item-level RFID. According to the Cambridge-based research firm IDTechEx, from 2007 onward item-level tags and systems will be the world's largest RFID market. The total market for item-level RFID systems (including tags) is projected to increase from $0.16 billion in 2006 to $13 billion in 2016. In other words, 0.2 billion items worldwide will be RFID tagged in 2006, but by 2016 that number will soar to 550 billion items. What is item-level RFID and why is it being proactively adopted these days? Let's take a closer look.

The basics

Item-level RFID is defined as the tagging of the smallest taggable unit of things — such as a library book, apparel, engineering parts, jewelry, laundry and even liquid substances (Figure 1). While its range of benefits depend, in part, on the industry in which the item-level RFID solution will be used, a possible list includes such things as better service, cost reduction, crime reduction, increased sales, removal of tedious procedures, and safety.

The most common types of item-level tags operate in the 125 kHz low-frequency (LF), 13.56 MHz high-frequency (HF), and the 902 MHz to 928 MHz ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) bands. In the latter case, far-field UHF is dominant. Near-field UHF is expected to become more prevalent though within the next five years due to its ability to lower costs when proven in high-volume applications and the fact that it would allow a more homogenous RFID supply-chain environment. However, it would still require different reader antennas from existing Gen 2 UHF. Of all the possible frequency options, HF remains the most popular for item-level tagging, having already surpassed one billion tags delivered. Because of its ability to leverage the Gen 2 protocol, UHF technology is now making great strides in the market as well.

Regardless of the frequency espoused, item-level tagging solutions must be able to meet a number of unique requirements. They must, for example, be small enough to be placed within product packaging without causing any obstruction. And, they must be accurately readable, even though many such tags may sit in close proximity to one another. Additionally, they must be able to work around RF-unfriendly materials such as liquids or metals. Other requirements include suitability for EPC coding/mass serialization and open systems, the ability to be made in quantities of millions to trillions yearly, and the ability to read items individually as well as many at a time. Item-level tags also need to be disposable or fitted for life.

Because the challenges at the item level are different than at the case and pallet level, industry-wide disagreements exist regarding which type of RFID technology performs best for item-level tagging. EPCglobal took up this question when it formed the Item Level Tagging Joint Requirements Group to explore potential use cases, or applications, for RFID at the item level. Earlier this year, the group identified seven critical scenarios that use RFID at the item level and applied these scenarios to test tags operating at a variety of frequencies. The goal was to determine which frequency bands would likely be used for tagging items and whether new air-interface protocol standards needed to be created to meet the requirements for item-level tagging. The group is continuing to work to identify, what, if any, standards need to be created for item-level tagging.

Current solutions

A number of industries have now emerged as prime candidates to earn a short-term return on investment (ROI) on item-level tracking. In the apparel industry, for example, it is notoriously difficult to keep track of apparel items, since a customer may try on an item and then return it to the wrong rack. Here, use of a low-priced tag (e.g., 15 cents or lower) attached to a $100 piece of clothing might not only eliminate this tracking problem, but result in greater sales as well. In this scenario, tags placed on individual garments could be used for in-store security and as a deterrent to counterfeiting, as well as in warehousing and distribution.

Another sector eyeing the technology is the pharmaceutical industry. Here, item-level tagging is viewed as a way to prevent theft and counterfeiting. It may also provide a way to help pharmaceutical companies comply with drug pedigree laws coming on the books in the future.

Ensuring these, and other industries get the solutions they need, falls to suppliers of item-level tagging solutions. Luckily, a number of companies now offer just such solutions. Here are some examples:

  • Impinj (www.impinj.com)

    Earlier this year, the company released an updated version of its GrandPrix UHF Gen 2 solution, extending its functionality to accommodate item-level tagging with tags as small as 9.0 mm. More recently, the company unveiled two Gen 2 RFID tag chips with specialized data storage for enhanced article identification and anti-counterfeiting. These include the Monza/ID chips with secure factory-programmed product identification numbers and Monaco/64, the first in a line of chips with user-programmable memory. Because the Monza/ID chips are pre-programmed with unique identification numbers and protected against erasure and overwriting, they are ideal for anti-counterfeiting applications. Monaco/64 chips provide 64 bits of user-rewritable memory and extend Gen 2 RFID tag data storage capabilities beyond the standard EPC to include additional user-defined information. Monaco/64 chip memory can be programmed and read repeatedly to keep data timely and accurate, or data can be locked to prevent subsequent alteration.

    The new Impinj chips are suitable for industries and applications with specific data storage requirements including the airline industry (baggage-handling information, equipment maintenance and inspection data), pharmaceutical industry (electronic pedigree, manufacturing lot and date code, and expiration date), retail supply chain (manufacturing plant location and warranty information) and sensor industry (temperature and humidity fluctuations, chemical and radiation exposure data).

  • RSI ID Technologies (www.rsiidtech.com)

    RSI ID Technologies' (RSI) Gen 2 UHF item-level tags (ILTs), based on the Monza chips and antenna designs from Impinj, are customized to work with products made of metal or containing liquid. They provide RFID users the ability to monitor individual items and allow for simultaneous item, case and pallet-level tracking within the same RFID infrastructure. RSI's Gen 2 UHF ILT's are significantly smaller than standard UHF tags making them ideal for placement on clothing, bottled water and other small items. Additionally, near-field readability allows individual tags to be recognized in highly populated environments where multiple RF fields are operating in proximity to one another.

  • SMARTCODE Corporation (www.smartcodecorp.com)

    The SL-EPC-2XXX near-field UHF EPC Gen 2 tags from SmartCode Corporation are specially designed for item-level tagging of pharmaceuticals, consumer packaged goods, media and high-cost items. Based on the company's unique tag antenna designs, the new UHF tag operates using the existing EPC Gen 2 air interface, but uses the near-field electromagnetic energy field instead of the regular far-field radio-frequency field. By using the UHF near-field electromagnetic field, the reading distance of the tags is reduced to one foot to three feet (up to 1 m) and sensitivity in liquids and metals is greatly improved. Compared to HF solutions available at 13.56 MHz, SMARTCODE's EPC Gen 2 UHF near-field tags provide a better read speed up to 64 times; thereby allowing end users to read more tags in a given reading time or faster read times for a single tag.

  • Tagsys RFID (www.tagsysrfid.com)

    Tagsys' approach to item-level tagging, dubbed the “The-Package-Is-The-Tag,” is based on UHF Gen 2 technology. Every tag that is part of the solution includes a UHF “kernel” tag that uses Impinj's Monza chip. The Gen 2 tag is small, measuring 12 mm × 8 mm, and fully functional, including chip and antenna. The kernel tag is common across all applications; customization begins with the optional addition of another, secondary antenna. The secondary antenna can be attached to a product that is already tagged with the kernel tag, thereby expanding its functionality according to the needs of a particular item-level application. While the antenna can be incorporated into the packaging of the product, it is notably not physically attached to the kernel tag. By not attaching them, an expensive manufacturing step is skipped, and cost-savings are achieved.

  • Vue Technology (www.vuetechnology.com)

    Vue Technology, a provider of item-level RFID solutions, has partnered with TAG Company to provide integrated electronic article surveillance (EAS) and RFID item-level tracking solutions for retailers. The TrueVUE RFID platform solution marks the first integration and convergence of RFID and EAS technologies to combat merchandise theft (Figure 2). It works by detecting potential item-level shrink activities on a shelf or display rack, and then immediately notifies the TAG Company intelligent EAS system within the retail environment. As a result, store personnel will know about theft activities before the individual has had the opportunity to leave the store.

Vue Technology has also formed an alliance with Alien Technology to deliver cost-effective, scalable, item-level RFID products across multiple industries. For this collaboration, Alien ALR-9800 Enterprise RFID readers will interact seamlessly with the TrueVUE RFID platform to provide visibility into inventory levels, location and authenticity to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and security of supply chain, logistics and asset tracking operations.

The bottom line

There is little debating the fact the item-level tagging has the potential to be a popular and profitable market segment for the RFID industry. But, while industry continues to grapple with the implications of this technology and suppliers work feverously to provide new solutions, one thing remains clear, the cost of tags and where in the supply chain items will be tagged, remain major issues. In order for widespread proliferation to occur, tag prices must drop. When that happens, there really will be no holding back the use of item-level RFID.