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E-Thread Provides Discrete Anti-Counterfeiting or Tracking Solutions

French startup Primo1D says that companies are testing its UHF RFID-enabled thread by incorporating it into the towels and other linens they manage and launder.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 19, 2014

Several industrial linen companies in the United Kingdom and France are testing a new RFID tag that is literally woven into a textile or fabric product. The E-Thread, developed by French startup Primo1D, consists of an EPC ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID chip connected to two 10-centimeter-long (4-inch-long) antennas—extending from opposite sides of the chip—integrated into a thread (which could be made from polyester, cotton, wool or plastic) that is then woven into garments, linens, luxury items or industrial products. Because the thread is nearly impossible to visually identify as an RFID tag, the company claims, it cannot be located and removed or disabled by counterfeiters or thieves, and its durability enables the tag to last as long as the textile into which it is woven.

The solution is the result of innovative work carried out by CEA-Leti, a French research institute that develops electronics and information technologies. In early 2013, CEA-Leti developed the RFID-enabled thread or yarn as part of a European project known as Platform for Advanced Smart Textile Applications (PASTA), to develop intelligence in textiles, according to Alain Papanti, Primo1D's chief sales and marketing officer. Dominique Vicard, the lead developer of the RFID-based thread at CEA-Leti, cofounded Primo1D in August 2013 to further develop and market the product. Both firms are located in Grenoble, France.

The E-Thread tag, shown here embedded in a spool of thread
The E-Thread technology—for which, Papanti says, there are 20 patents pending—is available in three versions: one with a wired sensor to track such things as temperature or motion, one with a light-emitting diode (LED) built into it, and a third with an EPC UHF passive RFID chip and antenna to store and transmit data when interrogated. The LED version is intended for cosmetic purposes; when sewn into a garment, a car-seat cover or some other object, it could illuminate when wired to a power source. The sensor-based thread could be used in an athlete's uniform to track his or her condition, but would also require a power source, such as a battery, to operate. To record that data, however, the sensor would need to be connected to some sort of data logger or computing device.

The RFID-enabled version is initially being tested by several companies that manage and launder linens and other textile products used by hospitals and hotels. Pilots of the RFID E-Thread are slated to continue for the next six months, allowing Primo1D the opportunity to make any necessary improvements before full-scale manufacturing and commercially releasing the product during the fourth quarter of 2015. The linen manufacturers undertaking the pilots are reading the tags built into threads in a variety of products, such as bedding or table cloths, and are putting those items through industrial laundry processes, as well as periodically reading the E-Threads, to test their durability.

The threads include standard EPC RFID chips, Papanti says, such as those sold by NXP Semiconductors and Impinj, which can measure 445 microns by 490 microns (0.018 inch by 0.019 inch) or less.

According to the Papanti, the E-Thread provides an alternative to other RFID labels that must be sewn onto or adhered to a piece of fabric or garment. The shortcoming of RFID labels, he notes, is that counterfeiters or thieves can see them and thus remove them from products. In addition, store personnel often remove them once a product is sold. When it comes to high-value luxury apparel, the concern of retailers and brands is that an RFID label will be removed from a product, attached to a counterfeit version of that product, and then returned to the supply chain for sale in stores. With the E-Thread solution, a counterfeiter would not know the location of the RFID chip and antenna, and would thus be unable to place them on a counterfeit product. Potential thieves would not be able to find the E-Thread either, he adds—since it cannot be seen—and, therefore, would be unable to disable the tags in a store or other location with the intention of passing them through a reader undetected.

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