Radio Frequency Identification

Australian sheep and haute couture from Prada might not seem to have much in common, but they do. Each is a valuable asset tracked by radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.

In the case of the sheep, a small plastic "smart tag" affixed to the animal's ear contains pertinent information about its bloodlines, date of birth and shot records.

The tag Milan, Italy-based Prada (officially known as I Pellettieri d'Italia SpA) uses on merchandise at its showcase Epicenter store in New York carries information about a garment's style, size, color and other details, including price.

The RFID tag in the sheep's ear contains a silicon chip to store data and a miniature antenna. The Prada tag and antenna, developed by Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc., can be printed or etched on an electronic substrate, which is then embedded in a plastic or laminated paper garment tag.

Data from these tags is captured by a reader unit, which consists of an antenna and radio transmitter, attached to a stationary or handheld device. The reader emits radio waves, and when a tag comes within the range of the reader, the tag wakes up and starts sending data. The reader captures this bit stream, decodes it and sends it back over a network to a host processor.

RFID operates in a number of unlicensed frequency bands worldwide, with 125 KHz and 13.56 MHz the most common. The 13.56-MHz tags hold as much as 2,000 bits of data, or roughly 30 times the information of 125-KHz tags.

These systems have a relatively short range-inches to a few feet-but that's enough for inventory control or payment applications, such as Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp.'s SpeedPass, which is already used by 6 million motorists. A gas-pump-based reader interrogates the key-fob SpeedPass (which contains a chip and an antenna) waved inches from the pump, obtains its identifier, passes that on via a Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) network to a back-end system for credit approval and then turns on the pump-all in seconds.

Although the majority of RFID tags are write-once/read-only, others offer read/write capability and could, for example, allow origin and destination data embedded in a shipping container's tag to be rewritten if the container is rerouted. The data store on a 13.56-MHz tag is large enough to contain routing information for the shipping container and a detailed inventory of the products inside.

SpeedPass and garment tags use what is known as passive RFID technology, with power to the tag supplied by the RF energy transmitted by the reader. Longer-range applications, such as automated toll-collection systems, use active-and more expensive-battery powered tags.

RFID tags used in inventory control and supply chain management applications compete with bar codes, but RFID tags can contain far more detailed information than bar codes. RFID tags also offer retailers an easier way to manage inventory than bar codes, which require a clear line of sight between the laser scanner and bar code.

'Smart Shelf'

In a 2001 test of RFID technology, San Francisco-based The Gap Inc. equipped some of its stores with "smart shelves" containing RFID readers. The system used built-in readers to instantly monitor the inventory on the smart shelves, gathering information on each garment through layers in a stack, a task that would be impossible with a bar-code scanner.

A majority of the new cars sold in the world by U.S., European and Japanese automakers now come equipped with keys embedded with RFID tags that each contain a unique identifier. When the key is inserted in the lock, it communicates with a reader built into the car's electronics.

If a thief uses a key without an embedded RFID chip-or one with the wrong identifier-the car will start but will be immobilized in a matter of minutes by the reader.

Large, read/write reusable RFID tags used to track auto parts on assembly lines can cost hundreds of dollars, but tags used for supply chain management systems have dropped to well below $1 per tag. This is still more expensive than a bar-code price tag system, which requires only a laser printer to generate an inexpensive label that contains price and inventory data.

Allied Business Intelligence Inc. in Oyster Bay, N.Y., estimates that some 220 million RFID tags will be shipped this year. Economies of scale coupled with demand will result in shipments jumping to 1.6 billion RFID tags in 2007, according to Allied Business.

But growth, particularly in competition with cheaper bar codes, seems stymied by what Bill Allen, a manager at Texas Instruments Inc.'s RFID division calls "the Holy Grail factor." Once, the Holy Grail for RFID cards was a price point below a dollar. Now, the bar seems to have been lowered to a dime or even a nickel for the kind of throwaway cards used in retail, and reaching that goal is daunting, Allen says.

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