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RFID Vendors Unite Behind Item-Level UHF

The ongoing debate about whether HF or UHF RFID is the superior choice for item-level tagging of pharmaceuticals will see another development tomorrow as a white paper is released that argues strongly for UHF. The document is sponsored by heavyweights ADT/Tyco Fire & Security, Alien, Impinj, Intel, Symbol, and Xterprise.
Jun 07, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

June 7, 2006—The ongoing debate about whether HF or UHF RFID is the superior technology for item-level tagging of pharmaceuticals will see another development tomorrow as a white paper is released that argues strongly for UHF. Sponsored by heavyweights ADT/Tyco Fire & Security, Alien, Impinj, Intel, Symbol, and Xterprise, the paper presents an argument -- supported by empirical evidence compiled by the companies -- that "dispels myths" about UHF RFID and demonstrates why it is in fact the right choice for pharma-tracking. RFID Update spoke about the paper and its purpose with Vinay Gokhale, vice president of RFID business development for Impinj, the company that has emerged as the de facto leader of the item-level UHF camp.

Ever since Impinj announced Gen2 UHF technology for use at the item level just before the RFID World conference in late February, interest in its possibilities has been building, according Gokhale. Consequently, so too has the debate about whether UHF is actually feasible. The long-held view by most in the industry is that UHF cannot be used at the item level -- particularly for pharmaceuticals -- because proximity to metals and liquids causes unacceptable degradation in performance. Impinj's "near-field UHF" item-level solution directly challenges this view, allowing UHF tags to be used in and around metal and liquid. At its booth at RFID World, the company displayed a simple but impactful demonstration to drive the point home: near-field UHF chips were floating in a Gatorade bottle filled with water while still being actively and accurately read by a nearby reader. Flying in the face of conventional industry wisdom, it was one of the most buzz-generating demonstrations on the show floor.

It is precisely this conventional wisdom that Impinj and the other white paper sponsors are now seeking to counter or, at the very least, question. Instead of treating it as a forgone conclusion that UHF can't work at the item level, the informal pro-UHF consortium believes the industry should integrate the recent developments around near-field UHF's capabilities and consider whether the conventional wisdom is flawed. "As an industry we need to have a discussion about this with the more recent [UHF developments] instead of years-old information that people are baking into their analyses," Gokhale commented. It is the sponsors' hope and expectation that this white paper will serve as the starting point. In one cohesive document, the argument for near-field UHF is refined and presented based on the findings from numerous tests conducted by all the sponsoring companies. "What the group has concluded is that UHF Gen2 is the ideal protocol and frequency for item-level pharmaceutical applications," said Gokhale.

In a nutshell, that conclusion rests on the following arguments:
  • Near-field UHF does work on and in close proximity to liquid
  • It also works on metal, and in fact leverages metal's physical characteristics to boost performance
  • The tight read range requirements of item-level applications can be accommodated by UHF
  • UHF can be as secure as HF
  • It provides 500% higher read speeds than HF
  • UHF tags are cheaper to produce than HF tags
  • They can also be smaller and more customizable in shape ("form factor")
The new white paper contradicts the findings of another document released earlier this year by RFID solutions provider ODIN technologies. In the benchmark entitled Pharmaceutical RFID: Battle of the Frequencies, ODIN concluded through its own testing analysis that HF is clearly superior to UHF for item-level tagging in the pharmaceutical supply chain (see Report: HF Wins First Round of RFID Frequency Battle). A key caveat to the findings, however, is that ODIN did not evaluate near-field UHF during the benchmark's production because sample product was not made available in time. Were ODIN to reevaluate using the near-field product available today, Gokhale expects that it "would come up with quite a different conclusion." While ODIN has not announced its intention to do so, the release of a follow-up item-level pharma benchmark seems likely given the developments in near-field UHF.

Aside from the new white paper's findings, the prestige of its sponsorship is also notable. With ADT/Tyco Fire & Security, Alien, Intel, Symbol, and Xterprise backing the document, some of the biggest industry names have effectively thrown their weight behind UHF for pharma. Add to that list Wal-Mart, which has been a vocal proponent of UHF, and Avery Dennison, which lent implicit support to UHF by co-hosting the Item-Level Tagging Using UHF Gen 2 webinar with Impinj in March, and it becomes clear that the UHF camp is shoring up very meaningful support.

Important to note, of course, is that ultimately the buyers' opinion matters most, not that of the RFID vendors. Near-field UHF will not necessarily "win" by adding more vendors to its camp, but by securing the support -- and purchase orders -- of the pharmaceutical manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers. These firms are probably open to being convinced; they simply want the technology that best addresses their problems of counterfeiting and shrinkage. If Impinj et al. make their argument convincingly, the pharma supply chain stakeholders may just change their thinking. Faster, broader, and more effective adoption of RFID is, after all, what everyone wants.
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