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EPCglobal Focuses on Item-Level Tagging

A work group has prepared several use cases for RFID at the item-level and will soon evaluate a variety of technologies to determine what steps need to be taken to create an item-level standard.
By Mark Roberti
Feb 23, 2006EPCglobal has been exploring potential use cases, or potential applications, for radio frequency identification at the item level. The organization's Item Level Tagging Joint Requirements Group recently identified seven critical scenarios that use of RFID at the item level and will soon apply these scenarios to test tags operating at a variety of frequencies, including the 125 kHz low-frequency (LF), the 13.56 MHz high- frequency (HF) and the 902 to 928 MHz ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) bands. The goal is to determine which frequency bands will likely be used for tagging items and whether new air-interface protocol standards need to be created to meet the requirements for item level tagging.

The Item Level Tagging Joint Requirements Group is made up of 10 members of EPCglobal's Healthcare and Life Sciences Business Action Group, 10 from the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods Business Action Group and 10 from the Hardware Action Group, which turns user requirements into specifications for standards. The committee was set up because some end users that are considering tagging items had concerns about the performance of tags on items, and about issues such as security and privacy.

"The scenarios in which you will use item tags are very different from the scenarios for case and pallet tags," says Sue Hutchinson, the facilitator for the item-level tagging requirements group. Hutchinson is also the director of industry adoption for EPCglobal US, located in Lawrenceville, N.J. "The tags will originate farther back in manufacturing and go farther forward in retail operations. We are going to look at the business requirements and use the same disciplined approach we used when we created the Gen 2 standard."

The working group explored a wide variety of potential situations in which items would be tagged and interrogated, such as on the manufacturing line, at receiving bays and at the point of sale. The group looked at the operating environment in which item-level tags would need to perform, the minimum and maximum read and write ranges end users would want, security requirements, privacy features, memory needs and so on.

On Jan. 13, the item-level work group submitted to the Hardware Action Group a 32-page report that covered 60 business scenarios in which items would be tagged. At a meeting on Jan. 16 and Jan. 17, members narrowed the scenarios by grouping use cases that were fairly similar. For instance, to test tags at a point-of-sale check-out scenario, there would be no need to test the interrogation of tags on bottles of pills, pairs of pants, DVDs and so on. Simply testing one of those at the point of sale would be enough.

The seven uses identified are:
  • Reading tags on garments hanging on a mobile metal rack
  • Reading tags on items in cases and on pallets going through a dock door portal
  • Reading tags on apparel at the point of sale
  • Reading tags on DVDs sitting in adjacent shelf slots in a display
  • Reading tags on vials and ampoules of liquids in a case
  • Reading tags on a mixture of consumer items in a plastic tote
  • Writing data to tags on vials on a production line
These represent some of the toughest scenarios end users will face when deploying RFID at the item-level. For instance, reading individual tags on items in cases and on pallets going through a dock door is a challenge because there may be dozens of items in each case, and many cases on a pallet. Interrogating each tag successfully in the second or two it takes for a pallet to travel through the read zone is difficult. Reading tiny tags on small vials is also complicated—the antennas are small and can't harvest much energy from the reader, and the tags are close to one another, creating potential interference issues. Reading a mixture of different items in random orientation in a tote can also be tricky, as it's not possible to ensure every tag is facing the interrogator antenna.

EPCglobal has invited vendors of RFID hardware, including UHF, HF and LF tags and readers, to participate in demonstrations of the seven scenarios. The demonstrations will be carried out for the members of the Hardware Action Group at a meeting on March 22 and 23.

The Hardware Action Group might decide that one technology works best, or that no one frequency works in all situations. After reviewing the results, the group will then decide what's required to create an item-level standard. If a new air-interface standard is deemed necessary, EPCglobal will begin working on it this year.

What the Hardware Action Group does next depends on the results of the technology demonstrations. "Our task might be as simple as publishing a set of guidelines about using an existing air-interface protocol, or as complex as creating a new air-interface protocol," says Hutchinson. "We're not going to know until technology demonstrations are done."
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