Digital Magazine

RFID Labels a Good Read

X-Ident Inc.'s radio frequency identification technology is well-suited for today's fast-moving security-conscious world.

The September 11 terrorist attacks, and the subsequent concerns about airline safety, have left government agencies and the carriers themselves scrambling for new ways to improve the integrity of air travel — in a manner that minimizes inconveniences to travelers.

Maybe, says Peter Kuzma, president of X-Ident Inc., the solution already exists.

X-Ident, a Philadelphia, PA-based converter of radio frequency identification (RFID) labels and tags, reports its products carry far greater amounts of information and are “readable” from greater distances than more common forms of automatic ID systems, such as bar codes.

Costs Coming Down
Kuzma saw airline luggage tags as a potentially prime market for RFID when X-Ident was established in 1995, since traditional paper tags were already a key Sihl (former parent co.) market. However, the initial cost of about $1-$2/tag didn't make them economically feasible for use by the airlines.

While Kuzma admits he's still waiting for that market to develop, he maintains his belief in the viability of RFID tags for baggage handling, pointing out RFID bag tags have the potential to improve efficiency and convenience by, among other things, allowing the airlines to locate a particular bag quickly and easily from among hundreds stored in baggage collection areas or in cargo holds.

Today, RFID tags and labels can be delivered for as little as 75 cents in volumes of 1 million labels, notes Kuzma. He adds the airlines' use of hundreds of millions of baggage tags would drop the price to well below 50 cents a tag. While still a costly expense for the airlines — which have been known to save money by eliminating such things as pickles from in-flight meals — the technology could be used to retrieve the luggage quickly of a particular passenger who checks a bag but fails to board the airplane — a potential terrorist threat.

“Certainly, now that they're under one dollar apiece, the airlines are looking at them,” Kuzma notes, “especially since September 11.”

Radio Waves Are the Difference
RFID is the latest in a line of automatic ID systems, such as bar codes and magnetic strips, that convey machine-readable data. The technology, however, relies not on character recognition to function but on radio waves that emit a frequency (almost universally 13.56 megahertz) that is detected easily by the reader. The read distance of common 13.56 MHz RFID-systems (passive systems without battery) is typically between 1.5 and 2 ft from a single reader, far greater than traditional bar codes, according to Kuzma.

An RFID system consists of a transponder and a read/write unit. Both have internal intelligence and an antenna that receives and sends data. The read/write unit sends out a signal causing the transponder to respond and transfer its own signal, containing encoded information. The transponder signal is decoded in the read/write unit and sent to a selected control unit (e.g., host computer).

According to Kuzma, RFID technology has two major advantages over other forms of automatic ID technologies, such as bar codes. Most importantly, the unique ID number of a transponder and reader can interact without being in direct “line of sight” with one another. That would allow one piece of luggage, for example, to be singled out from among dozens of others without each tag being physically checked individually. X-Ident's RFID technology also uses “anti-collision” technology that allows it to read dozens of tags a second in a given area with a high degree of accuracy, notes Kuzma.

In addition, he says, RFID offers flexibility that other forms of data ID do not. Since it uses a programmable chip, its data can be rewritten as needed. As a result, he says, “You don't have to add a new label if you want more data; you simply go back in at a different read point and write new data, as many as 100,000 times.”

A New Angle
Ultimately, says Kuzma, the true advantage of RFID versus bar codes is its operation is seamless and requires less work on the part of the user to initiate a transaction.

“A lot of bar code labels don't get read automatically because of the angle at which the tags hang from the bags,” explains Kuzma. “This means many bags have to be manually identified and routed to the right plane. It…would be a lot more efficient to have an RFID identifier that's not dependent on line of sight with the reader, so no matter how the tag hangs on the baggage, it's going to get read.”

Kuzma, who helped design an RFID label manufacturing and business development program for Avery when he worked for the industry giant in 1996, notes X-Ident's core technology is packaging the inlays using micro-chips produced by the likes of Texas Instruments and Phillips Electronics in a way that ensures the packaged inlays function correctly for the key parameters demanded by the application. That, along with a current capacity to make 80 million RFID labels/yr, he says, makes the company unique.

“RFID is a special subset of electrical engineering in which not nearly as many people are experts,” explains Kuzma. “It's not your electrician with an understanding of wiring and transformers.”

A key to RFID converting, he reports, is understanding how the RFID system really works and each component's role. From this, customized quality systems can be developed to ensure the end-user receives tag and label products that are 100% RFID functional for their particular application. These customized quality control systems require a good understanding of what can go wrong in each component (chip, antenna, bonding, packaging).

For example, first a chip antenna must be sized to achieve the desired read distance — the bigger the antenna, the longer the read distance. That may be simple enough, but the process is complicated by the fact that the adhesives and materials used to convert an RFID tag ultimately can detune the chip's 13.56 megahertz radio frequency. X-Ident technicians work to assure the various components of the tag ultimately combine to emit the proper frequency.

Kuzma says a chip that is “off frequency” still will emit a readable signal up to a point; however, the read distance likely will be reduced. Also, it can be affected by the surface to which the RFID label is attached. Those are the kinds of variables X-Ident tests before the product reaches the end-user.

“There are ways to inspect for those hidden flaws as part of the label-making process,” notes Kuzma, “so you know what you're sending out to the customer not only will function optimally from the start but have no hidden defects that will result in premature field failure.

“That's all part of designing an inlay,” Kuzma continues. “That's knowing what materials you're going to use, how much impact they're going to have on the frequency, and how the label will be used in the field.”

An “Infant” with Experience
X-Ident is a sub. of the German-based Surfeld Holding Group, a $600 million conglomeration of paper companies that produces everything from coated papers to finished labels. Five years ago, X-Ident's former parent company, Sihl, formed the subsidiary to develop RFID technology for the airlines and others. It was purchased by Surfeld in 2000.

In spite of RFID's relative infancy (the technology was developed in the late 1970s), X-Ident's 30 employees have more than 150 years of combined experience. And that, says Kuzma, is what sets them apart from tag and label converters who “dabble” in RFID.

“The reason the Surfeld Group wanted to buy this particular outfit was the expertise of our people and our high-volume manufacturing process,” explains Kuzma. “There are a whole bunch of companies that make these microchips. And there are a growing number of converters who figure out a pretty good mechanical way to cut the circuits and throw them into some moving webs. But the real key is ensuring the initial RFID label design is right for the application and knowing what you have to measure in the electronic circuits to determine if you've done anything to impact the functionality of the RFID.”

He adds, “The core competency of X-Ident is understanding each component in the RFID label. We believe the secret to this is understanding the electronics — as well as the converting process — and being able to combine both knowledge bases.”

Pushing to Optimum Levels
To create the finished RFID tags and labels, X-Ident first coordinates the inlay design and develops the proper electronic circuits, which go through a process called “bonding,” where the chip is married to the antenna using either wire or adhesive. Then it is embedded in the tag or label material using a process specifically designed for RFID labelmaking. Those materials can be overprinted with copy, graphics, or even variable data in a thermal transfer printer. (Equipment and materials are proprietary.)

Kuzma says X-Ident's proprietary testing equipment allows its lab technicians to conduct quality assurance tests. As a result, the company assures delivery of “not only circuits that work but circuits that work at the levels required by the application” on each of the 80 million RFID tags and labels X-Ident is capable of producing each year.

“It's very important to have those quality tests,” Kuzma explains. “They're not available on the open market, and that is really where our customized RFID knowledge allows us to test and evaluate key quality measurements. In pilot runs, nobody's really that concerned if a couple of labels are bad, or if a label in a field suddenly stops working after three months. But as those pilot projects become commercial, those are going to be the critical things that differentiate the really good RFID packaging companies from the others.”

Labels with Smarts
As evidence of that expertise, X-Ident has developed a proprietary IQ-Paper® it says meets the required substrate criteria for a wide range of RFID applications, including parcel distribution, airline baggage handling, manufacturing, mass transit, textile distribution, document tracking, sports events, and warehouse management.

IQ-Paper is based on 13.56 MHz technologies from Texas Instruments (Tag-it) and Philips Semiconductors (i-code), both of which are suitable for many applications needing intelligent labels. However, chips from other companies also are being used in applications now. Two variables that differentiate chips are the amount of user memory to write data to and the security protection between reader and chip transmissions (cashless payments may want a higher security level than an application of reading a box label in a warehouse).

Necessary components — integrated circuits and antennas — are chosen specially to fit the needs of mass-market applications. The specialty substrate works well with standard bar code applications, Kuzma says, and it is designed for a wide variety of printers, handscanners, readers, and software equipped with RFID-system components.

One of the most common forms of RFID technology currently in use supports the E-Z pass systems used on the toll roads of many states. This system allows an RFID antenna attached to the windshield of a vehicle to communicate with a transponder at a toll booth to register and deduct the toll from the driver's prepaid account automatically. There are hundreds of thousands of E-Z pass users.

One of the most practical mass-market uses of RFID technology, suggests Kuzma, would be for “smart tickets” that could replace the use of cash at an entertainment facility. They would allow the park to track in “real time” which rides or venues are most popular and track the peak versus slow times of particular rides. They could help create a database about a particular entertainment facility and, therefore, aid the business operator in making wiser marketing decisions, says Kuzma, adding that in some cases this type of system could give them better visibility and control over their incoming cash.

Another company (auto ID system developer AMUSEMENTSOFT of California) has developed and just installed its first ticket-based RFID system (TAG & PLAY) at a customer in which formerly coin-operated video games are now activated with credits stored on the user's X-Ident-produced RFID customer loyalty card. The system is very adaptable to many cashless payment applications, says Kuzma.

X-Ident recently signed an agreement with National Ticket, a 100-yr-old, privately owned US company. It is a leading manufacturer of admission, cash control, and access control tickets, as well as other products from a worldwide base in industries such as theme parks, outdoor amusements, family fun centers, theaters, transit, schools, universities, professional sports, race tracks, and more. The companies will team to provide RFID tickets based on National's ticketing products and customer base. The agreement is expected to result in the type of advanced “smart tickets” that will aid the efficiency, logists, security, and profitability of family entertainment facilities.

“I'm very excited about this opportunity,” says Kuzma. “This is a market in which RFID technology can help companies improve their internal efficiencies in a way they never could before.”

Philadelphia, PA; 267/254-4698; x-identusa.com

Texas Instruments, Dallas, TX; 214/567-2458; ti.com

Philips Semiconductors, Eindhove, The Netherlands; fax: +31 40 27 24825; semiconductors.philips.com

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