Alien Demos Sub-10-cent RFID Tag

By Admin

Alien Technology recently demonstrated the world's first low-cost RFID tag based on the Auto-ID Center's specification.


Exclusive: July 1, 2002 — Some 140 people representing virtually all the members of the Auto-ID Center gathered in Cambridge, England, last month for a semi-annual board meeting. ThingMagic was asked to demonstrate the reader it has developed to meet the Auto-ID Center’s specification. (For more links to articles about Alien, see the bottom of this page.)

Bernd Schoner of ThingMagic was planning to read battery powered tags rigged up to emulate the Auto-ID Center spec. But shortly before the demonstration began, Curt Carrender, Alien’s director of RFID systems, had a surprise: five passive tags incorporating Alien’s breakthrough nanoblocks.

Unbeknownst to just about everyone in the room, Alien had received the first silicon wafers with its chip design back from a foundry a couple of days before the meeting. Carrender had wire-bonded off-the-shelf test antennas to five of the nanoblocks and stuffed them in his suitcase.

Some of the technical people in the audience were skeptical that Alien could produce a working chip on the first try. Usually microchips have to go through several revisions before they work flawlessly. Each revision can take several months, from the time of the redesign until the foundry delivers silicon.

Schoner took the tags and placed them in front of the ThingMagic reader. The reader beeped and the electronic product code stored on the nanoblock popped up on an overhead projector. Some in the audience didn’t fully understand what they were seeing.

It was the equivalent of two early computers equipped with modems built in two different places communicating over the phone lines for the first time.

“It was an exciting moment,” says Schoner. “It was truly and an open protocol tag talking to an open protocol reader. The fact that they worked the first time they came close to each other was amazing. It’s what we’ve been working for.”

Carrender says the engineers who had worked for months on the ThingMagic reader and the Alien tags were extremely pleased. “You always expect that there might be a little bug that shows up in any development like this,” he says. “But we got lucky. It worked.”

Alien is now tweaking some aspects of the nanoblock production, but no changes are needed to the fundamental chip design. That means the company can begin offering demonstration kits to potential customers around October.

“We will have capacity by the end of the first quarter to produce a million or so tags a month,” says Tom Pounds, Alien’s VP of business development. “From there, we’ll be able to ramp up very quickly. If the demand is there, we’ll have supply.”

Alien will likely sign its first formal sales deal by the end of August, but more than likely, it will sell initial capacity to strategic partners like Avery Dennison, a global leader in adhesive labels. Avery is a member of the Auto-ID Center and has invested in Alien.

Alien has also been working on reader designs to ensure that there are readers that will work with its chip. The company says it can produce readers now, in low volume, for $800. And it could have a $400 reader ready for production by the middle of next year.

Alien is partnering with Symbol Technology and NCR to produce a handheld reader that should be on the market late next year. The reader will use PCMCIA cards to communicate with RFID tags at different frequencies, because Europe and the U.S. use different UHF frequencies for RFID.

Building Test

Earlier this year, Alien conducted tests with RFID tags that emulated the Auto-ID Center spec. The tests were done at a Wal-Mart facility in Arkansas and were designed to see how tags using the Auto-ID Center spec would operate in real-world conditions.

“We were able to demonstrate that the speed of the system and the anti-collision algorithm worked as expected,” says Pounds. “And we showed that the system was robust enough to operate in a noisy RF environment.”

The tests also showed that it is possible to work around metal and water, even with UHF tags. Alien will supply the actual low-cost RFID tags for the next phase of the Auto-ID Center field test, which begins in September. The tags will be put on individual items. And if those tests prove successful, even some of the doubting Thomas might become believers.

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