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The Great RFID Debate: HF or UHF?

With interest in item-level tagging on the rise, end users are trying to figure out whether to use high-frequency or ultrahigh frequency tags on individual products. Millions of dollars ride on the outcome.
By Mark Roberti
The split is not just among pharmaceutical manufacturers. Some DVD and computer game retailers are looking at high-frequency and even low-frequency systems, because they work better on unique items containing metal (the aluminum layers on DVDs and CD-ROMs interfere with RF signal and cause problems for UHF systems). Clothing manufacturers, on the other hand, seem to prefer UHF systems because they offer faster read rates and longer read ranges, with no water or metal in their products to interfere with the radio waves.

EPCglobal did an evaluation of the performance of UHF and HF tags in seven item-level tagging scenarios last week (see EPCglobal Focuses on Item-Level Tagging). We hope to have a report on how the evaluations went this week. ODIN Technologies, a systems integrator in Dulles, Va., has done its own evaluation of HF and UHF (which it is keeping under wraps because it's selling the results). Still, I don't expect this issue to be resolved any time soon.

I'm often asked whether I think HF or UHF is better for item-level tagging. I wish I had a simple answer, but I don't. HF's advantages for item-level tagging are well known. UHF was originally embraced for longer-range supply chain applications, and its ability to be adapted for item-level tagging is less well known. (The Impinj webinar will raise some interesting points that might surprise some people.)

I also understand that one benefit of using UHF for item-level tagging is that end users can purchase a single type of interrogator for reading tags on pallets, cases and items. This reduces cost because they can get volume discounts on interrogators, and it is easier to maintain one type of system than two.

Personally, I would like to see EPCglobal create a standard for HF (or simply adopt one of the existing ISO standards as an EPC standard). Once end users know there are standards for both HF and UHF, they will consider which is best for their needs. That means the free market can decide which technology is best, or it may decide one technology is good for some applications and the alternative is good for other applications.

Competition between the two RFID technologies is as healthy as competition among vendors of a single type of technology because it gives end users a choice, encourages innovation and fosters adoption. If the market chooses one frequency over another, there will be winners and losers among vendors—but the RFID industry, as a whole, will be better off.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.

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