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Disagreement Awaits Imminent HF Gen2 RFID Standard

A key member of the EPCglobal committee that is developing the 13.56 MHz Gen2 HF standard has serious doubts as to whether the standard will represent a significant improvement over what is already available in the market, and if it can meet pharmaceutical industry needs for high-speed item-level identification.
Dec 11, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

December 11, 2007—Standards body EPCglobal is completing a 13.56 MHz high frequency (HF) counterpart to its popular Gen2 standard, which currently exists only for UHF. Known as EPCglobal Gen2 HF or HF V2, the specification is in the final review stages, with ratification expected early next year. Two members of the committee responsible for developing the standard contacted by RFID Update presented very divergent views of the standard's value and ability to provide its intended read speed and accuracy.

Gen2 HF is exactly what pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors need to meet electronic pedigree (e-pedigree) and other track-and-trace needs, according to the perspective of John Jordon of TAGSYS. Ken Laing of Magellan Technology, however, told RFID Update the Gen2 HF standard offers little if any improvements over existing standards and commercially available products. Each company is represented on the EPCglobal committee that is developing the standard (Laing serves as editor).

The standard specification requires ASK modulation and other technology protocols that TAGSYS supports and promotes. PJM modulation, a flavor of HF technology championed by Magellan, is included in the standard but only as an optional component. (See RFID Solution Tracks 100,000 Individual Documents for background information about the differences in ASK and PJM technology.)

Opinions about the underlying technology are at the root of Laing's and Jordon's disagreement over the value and effectiveness of the Gen2 HF standard. If the prospective user community exhibits a similar difference of opinion, the standard may hinder rather than help RFID adoption. Without clear consensus that the standard will provide the needed functionality and be accepted throughout the supply chain, companies would likely be reluctant to adopt, particularly if they fear choosing a technology that ultimately wouldn't be widely supported by partners and vendors.

Similar uncertainty was a longstanding barrier to RFID adoption for logistics and supply chain operations. The original Gen2 standard was created to provide RFID functionality for pallet and case tracking in a variety of common distribution environments. In relatively short time, the standard won the support of vendors and prospective users, and helped trigger a surge of RFID adoption, particularly in the consumer goods and manufacturing industries. Adoption momentum did not spread to the pharmaceutical industry as quickly as hoped, in large part because the industry lacks consensus as to whether UHF or HF is best suited to its particular requirements. Pilots conducted with current technologies have been, on the whole, inconclusive.

Florida, California, and other states are trying to validate the authenticity of drugs and their supply sources by requiring electronic pedigrees to accompany pharmaceuticals (see RFID E-Pedigree's Potential to Improve Pharma and RFID Solution Announced for California e-Pedigree Reqs). RFID is frequently touted as an efficient, secure option for meeting pedigree and other identification and documentation requirements. Pharmaceutical manufacturers, packagers, and distributors would need RFID systems capable of simultaneously identifying dozens or hundreds of individually packaged items at production speeds. Many medicines are liquid, and many others have foil packaging. Getting accurate reads has proved challenging in such high-density, high-speed environments, especially for UHF technology. That challenge motivated the development of the Gen2 HF standard.

"Pharmaceutical companies want very high read rates and accurate reads. Those that are more speed-focused go with UHF technology. Those that are accuracy-driven go with HF and realize there will be some speed limitations compared to UHF. The HF V2 standard delivers both speed and accuracy," Jordon told RFID Update last month when TAGSYS announced its Gen2 HF product line (see TAGSYS Announces Pre-Standard HF Gen2 Suite).

Several pharmaceutical companies have used the existing ISO 15693 HF standard for item-level tagging systems. It has not met their process needs for identifying returned batches, where 300 to 400 mixed products may be packed into a single tote, according to Magellan's Laing. He said read rates of 200 tags per second could be expected for Gen2 HF, but he questions whether that rate will provide enough incentive to stimulate adoption. "Companies encoding an EPC on a Gen2 HF tag will get an improvement over encoding EPC in ISO 15693. Will it be a significant improvement? I suggest not," said Laing. "You'll get something marginally better than [the ISO 15693 products] on the market now."

Instead, Laing recommends the ISO 18000-3 Mode 2 standard for pharmaceutical item-level identification. Magellan manufacturers equipment that supports the standard, which Laing claims can reliably identify more than 1,000 items per second. EPC numbers can be encoded in standardized ISO 18000-3 tags, which is another reason Laing questions the value of the forthcoming Gen2 HF standard.

On the other hand, even though it is an open, international standard, ISO 18000-3 Mode 2 is not widely supported by tag and reader makers, which represents a limitation for potential users.

Equipment that supports multiple protocols would represent a possible solution to the standards dilemma. Laing said there would be no significant technical challenges to developing chips and readers that support the mandatory ASK and optional PJM Gen2 HF protocols. TAGSYS' Jordon stressed that his company's product line was developed to take the risk out of future upgrades, and said the company is planning to produce a dual-mode HF/UHF reader, but did not say whether it would support PJM.

However, such equipment is not available today and in all likelihood won't be when the Gen2 HF standard is officially released in the first or second quarter of 2008. Nor are the uncertainties about Gen2 HF's value and differentiation from other standards likely to be resolved. With ISO 18000-3 and ISO 15693, plus the high-speed ISO 14443 contactless fare card standard already available, the emergence of Gen2 HF raises the following question: If there are multiple standards, are there any?

EPCglobal did not provide comment or a source to interview for this article, despite multiple requests by RFID Update. NXP, a leading RFID silicon provider that has partnered with TAGSYS to develop Gen2 HF technology, did not respond to an interview request.
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