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Label Applicator Works on Pallets

Nestlé, Sato and UPM Rafsec have developed what they believe is the first automatic pallet-labeling device for UHF RFID tags.
By Jonathan Collins
Dec 21, 2004A trio of companies have developed what they believe is the first device that automatically applies UHF smart labels to pallets. Label and bar code printer specialist Sato Deutschland designed and built a trial machine for food giant Nestlé, but also plans to sell the device to other companies.

"Large CPG companies like Nestlé, Kraft or P&G are 100 percent automated in their warehouses and distributions centers, and they don't want to manually stick RFID labels from a desktop printer on every pallet. They don't have the manual capacity for that, and they need to automate the process," says Andreas Kolb, RFID business development manager at Sato Deutschland.

Samuli Strömberg
Nestlé worked with Sato and UPM Rafsec, an RFID tag headquartered in Tampere, Finland, to develop a way to automate its pallet tagging for shipments to German retailer Metro Group, which began accepting RFID tagged pallets from 20 of its largest suppliers, including Nestlé, in November.

The Sato-developed RFID-label applicator is based on an existing Sato bar code pallet label applicator, but includes RFID read-write capabilities and a specially designed method to attach the RFID labels to the pallets.

Adding to the complexity of applying the RFID labels was the three-dimensional nature of each label. UPM Rafsec designed the labels so that a single RFID label could be read regardless of the products on the pallet and the RF-interference potential of those products. The Rafsec Flag Tag uses the UCODE EPC 1.19 chip by Philips Semiconductors.

"Through folding, the label becomes a 3D label that can be applied to the pallet and sticks out like a flag," says Samuli Strömberg, business development director at UPM Rafsec.

The UPM Rafsec Flag Tag label is slightly larger than the standard 4-inch by 6-inch size usually used for bar-coded pallet labels. At 4 by 7.5 inches, the label is big enough to be folded to create the flap with the inlay in it and still hold a bar code and other printed data on the label's flange, which anchors the label to the pallet.

Sato says that Nestlé plans to install two of the automatic pallet labelers at the Nestlé distribution center in Rangsdorf, Germany, in January.

While all the Metro-bound shipments leaving Nestlé's Rangsdorf distribution center need to have RFID labels, that represents only around 20 percent of the total pallets that the center ships. The remaining 80 percent use non-RFID labels with bar codes. In order that the applicator could be used for both RFID and non-RFID labels, Sato's RFID Pallet applicator has two print engines—one for RFID labels and the other for traditional bar-coded labels.

According to SATO, adding RFID to the applicator slows the pallet throughput of the machine a little because of the time needed to read and write to the RFID tag. "It can take 500 to 600 milliseconds to perform the read-write. That makes the process about 20 percent longer than with a bar code applicator," says Kolb.

Sato says it will market its applicator to other companies besides Nestlé, although pricing has yet to be determined.

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