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Zebra Announces UHF RFID Card Printers

The devices—the first of their kind on the market—will enable end users to print and encode EPC Gen 2 RFID cards for use in access control, asset tracking, work-in-process and other applications.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jan 10, 2008Zebra Technologies has unveiled two devices that will enable companies to print and encode their own passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID-enabled plastic cards, useable for a range of applications, from personal identification to asset tracking. Prior to the availability of these printer-encoders, end users have had to farm out the printing of such cards to RFID tag makers or custom print houses able to both embed an RFID inlay in a card and print the card faces.

Until recently, companies deploying a passive RFID application have had few choices when it came to RFID tag form factor. Standard RFID printer-encoders—those that encode Electronic Product Codes (EPCs) to RFID inlays embedded in standard shipping labels—designed for supply chain applications were the only off-the-shelf option. That began to change in 2006, however, when ADASA introduced a mobile encoder for simple, on-pitch inlays rather than full labels (see ADASA Developing Wearable Tag Encoder). In March 2007, printer manufacturer Lexmark introduced a laser printer (the T640rn) that can print 8.5-by-11-inch paper and encode RFID inlays embedded in the stock (see New Office Laser Printer Encodes Tags), opening new printing options to end users of passive RFID.

Zebra's R3i RFID card printer can print on one side of RFID-enabled stock.

Zebra has built its two UHF RFID card printer-encoders using its existing Zebra card printer bodies, the P330i and the P430i. The R3i can print one side of RFID-enabled card stock, while the R4i can print on both sides. Both models include a ThingMagic Mercury 4e RFID encoder module, which is roughly the size of a credit card, supports two antennas and is designed to read and encode passive UHF tags complying with a variety of standards, including EPC Gen 2 and older protocols, such as ISO 18000-6B, EPC Class 0, rewriteable EPC Class 0 and EPC Class 1. However, says Bill Bulzoni, Zebra's director of business development for RFID, all initial users of the card printers are exclusively employing EPC Gen 2 inlays. Going forward, he adds, he does not expect that customers will want to use older standards, such as EPC Class 0 or Class 1 Gen 1.

A number of Zebra customers are already utilizing the new RFID card printers, Bulzoni says, as part of building access-control systems. For this application, the card face is printed with an image of the person to whom the card is issued, along with an ID number that is also encoded to the card's embedded RFID inlay. Unlike access-control cards containing low-frequency (LF) or high-frequency (HF) RFID tags, which have a short read range, a UHF-based access control card affords building security operators more visibility into who enters a facility. "If you have a low-frequency card and use it to open a locked door," he says, "you may then hold the door open for a person behind you to enter, as well." In such a scenario, the second person's identity would not be captured, even though that individual might not have permission to enter the building.

The readers mounted near a doorway are likely to read a UHF card 10 or more feet away, however, so even if a person entering a building fails to present the card to an interrogator, the security system will likely collect that entrant's identity passively. To authenticate each individual's identity, surveillance cameras can be used to compare each entrant's card data with his or her face, using facial recognition software. RFID systems integrator EPCsolutions utilizes the Zebra card printers in its TetraGate solution, both in combination with biometric scanning for authentication (TetraGate2) and without the addition of biometric scanning (TetraGateLite).

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