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Zebra Travels the Migration Path

The leading maker of bar code printers has joined the Auto-ID Center's efforts to create a low-cost RFID tracking system.
Jul 15, 2002July 15, 2002 -- Last month, Zebra Technologies Corp. became a member of the Auto-ID Center. It may seem strange for one of the leading makers of bar code printers to support a group that is developing technology the could one day replace bar codes. But Zebra doesn't see it that way.

"There's been a lot of hype about RFID replacing bar codes," says Matthew Ream, Zebra's senior product manager for RFID systems. "Business Week recently ran a story that proclaimed the death of bar codes. We see RFID as complementary to bar codes."

In fact, Zebra has been working on RFID smart labels for about four years. Two and half years ago, the company introduced the R-140, a high-end printer capable of turning out tags, tickets and labels with embedded RFID tags.

The printer has an encoding engine that enables it to work with tags from several different manufacturers. An RF antenna just under the print head can check whether the RFID tag is working before printing the label.

Zebra's new R402 desktop printer supports Texas Instruments' Tag-It and Philips' I-Code, as well as RFID tags that use the ISO 15693 standard. Ream says RFID still represents a small portion of Zebra's business, but he expects that to change.

"We are betting the biggest growth area will be in smart labels, which is the newest segment [of RFID]," he says. "It is safe to say the market has grown slower than everyone has hoped, but we see good things ahead."

So why join the Auto-ID Center?

"We see it as a good venue to keep in touch with our customers, many of whom are major players in the Auto-ID Center," Ream says. "We want to understand how RFID is going to impact their business. And we want to stay on top of the technology as it progresses and make sure that we are ready to support it when it comes to fruition."

Ream envisions bar codes and RFID merging. He points out that some retailers might benefit from using RFID internally, but may still need to use bar codes to track goods coming from suppliers who haven't upgraded.

Conversely, he says, a supplier may not be able to justify the expense of using RFID internally. But because of requirements from big retailers like Wal-Mart, the supplier may have to put smart labels on its goods.

Ream says a lot of companies can benefit today from using smart labels, but they need to do their homework and analyze exactly where RFID can deliver a return on investment.

"It requires looking at your overall operations to see what RFID can do," he says. "Major companies are starting to do that, but it isn't a trivial task."
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