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NeWave Sensor Solutions Unveils Smart Shelf to Track High-Volume, Fast-Moving Consumer Goods

The system uses RFID-enabled shelf dispensers, eliminating the need to tag individual items, and related costs.
By Beth Bacheldor
Mar 06, 2014

NeWave Sensor Solutions, a five-year-old RFID firm based in Ohio, set out to tackle some of the limitations associated with item-level tagging for fast-moving consumer goods, such as razors, baby formula and energy drinks. This week, the company unveiled its comprehensive solution, known as the NeWave Smart Shelf, which employs NeWave's patented antenna technology, EPC Gen 2 readers and tags, and an application that can run on tablets or smartphones. The technology has been tested in proof-of-concept implementations at several retail sites during the past two years, and is now commercially available as a complete solution.

For retailers, RFID has had several shortcomings, says Joe Ryan, NeWave's CEO, primarily with regard to achieving accurate reads for item-level tags. The industry has "focused on readers," Ryan says. "There has been a lot of work on transponders, and there is a plethora of software and middleware solutions. But no one had really focused on a key element of RFID that can produce accuracy and controllability, if you will, and that is the antenna." He adds that "there are some inherent challenges with the patch antennas [used in most RFID implementations] that you can't overcome with readers and tags and software alone."

With the NeWave Smart Shelf, as products are removed, the metal pusher retracts, exposing an RFID tag, and thereby triggering an alert that the shelf needs to be restocked.
The cornerstone of the NeWave Smart Shelf is the Wave RFID antenna, specifically designed to address the needs of item-level tagging. According to Ryan, traditional patch antennas—originally built for medium-range communication systems—radiate beams in a conical fashion with polarization that is transverse to the beam's direction. Consequently, such patch antennas have difficulty reading tags if they are not properly oriented, and might miss a tag up close simply due to it lying outside the beam or having misaligned polarization. The NeWave antenna was designed with five small dipoles that radiate beams in a circular fashion, surrounding the antenna, even with a reduction in reader power. The beams radiate in different directions, illuminating the full length of the antenna, Ryan explains, and tags within the antenna's vicinity can be read regardless of their orientation or position.

With an improved antenna, Ryan says, NeWave set out to devise a solution that would work specifically for fast-moving, high-volume, item-level RFID. "The 'a-ha' moment came while we were sitting in a lab one day," he recalls. It was then that the team, which included NeWave's CTO, Dr. Walter "Den" Burnside, realized that they could use data captured from tags embedded in a shelf rather than affixed to individual items.

The NeWave Smart Shelf includes the Wave antennas, which are 1.5 inches wide and are available in 3-, 5- and 7-foot-long slabs (each antenna is capable of radiating 360 degrees equal to its length, so a 3-foot-long antenna can radiate out 3 feet). The antennas are affixed, either vertically or horizontally,)between the back board of a shelving unit and the shelves. EPC Gen 2 tags with unique ID numbers are embedded within shelf pads that can be retrofitted into spring-loaded shelf pushers. The pushers move products forward as goods are pulled from the shelves. The spring, composed of metal, covers the tags; the metal attenuates a tag's energy so that it cannot be read. But as products are removed and the metal pusher retracts, a tag is exposed so it can be interrogated and its data collected, thereby triggering an alert that the shelf requires restocking. Products containing liquids and metals placed in the shelf pusher atop the shelf pad further attenuate the tags.

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