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EPCglobal Puts Item Tagging to the Test

Technology vendors gave demonstrations so EPCglobal could observe the performance of item-level tags and readers operating at different frequencies in seven different use case scenarios.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
While manufacturers of LF tags participated in some of the tagging scenarios, the focus of the event was on HF and UHF tags, which are being most widely tested and deployed in item-level tracking. Whether HF or UHF is best suited for item-level tagging is a source of significant debate within the RFID industry (see The Great RFID Debate: HF or UHF?). Proponents of HF say the technology's resistance to interference and stronger ability to read in the near field, rather than at distance, make it best suited for item-level applications. Proponents of UHF technology, meanwhile, claim UHF tags—particularly those compliant with the EPC Gen 2 standard—are also suitable for item-level tagging.

RFID Journal hosted a webinar today, Mar. 29, entitled "Item-Level Tagging Using UHF Gen 2," in which Impinj, a Seattle-based manufacturer of UHF chips and readers, explained why it considers UHF the best choice for item-level tagging.

"The technology won't be the challenge," says Hutchinson. "The challenge will be finding what best meets end users' business challenges that are unique to their companies. Wal-Mart Stores, Target and the DOD are all going to receive a broad spectrum of goods from different companies in different industries, and they have to be able to receive those goods without amassing a lot of different infrastructures. And pharmaceutical firms also have to balance those needs with the need to get near-perfect performance, but I think this is a tractable problem."

Users of EPC systems are not bound by one single frequency. In fact, drugmakers Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline (see Pfizer Using RFID to Fight Fake Viagra and GlaxoSmithKline Tests RFID on HIV Drug) are both testing HF tags for item-level tracking of pharmaceuticals, while applying UHF tags on cases and pallets of goods. Purdue Pharma, on the other hand, is applying UHF tags to bottles, cases and pallets of its OxyContin painkiller (see Purdue Pharma to Run Pedigree Pilot).

However, if product makers and distributors use both HF and UHF tags, businesses that receive the tagged goods, such as pharmacies or other retailers, will have to deploy equipment able to operate at both frequencies. Boston-based ThingMagic and a handful of other reader makers sell multifrequency readers capable of reading both HF and UHF tags.

"We don't have a strong position on HF versus UHF," says Kevin Ashton, ThingMagic's vice president of marketing. "Our only position is that we need to offer whatever makes the most sense for the end user, and we don't know yet which frequency that will be. The jury is still out, and I think it will be out for the rest of the year. You could argue that using multiple frequencies is preferable, because you spread out use of the RF spectrum—but using a single frequency would provide better economies of scale and might be better and healthier for the industry."

According to Ashton, ThingMagic readers were used in a number of the demonstrations during last week's event. He notes that addressing end users' needs around item-level tagging will require more than just determining the best frequency. "For item-level tagging," he says, "end users need a Gen 3 protocol that is more secure and offers more efficient read rates than the UHF Gen 2 standard."

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