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RFID Readers Get Smaller

Alien Technology and WJ Communications collaborate on a next-generation RFID reader.
By Bob Violino
Sep 08, 2003By Sam Greengard

Sept.9, 2003 – One of the challenges of RFID technology is designing and manufacturing equipment that’s small enough to function in a wide range of environments. Now a strategic partnership between Alien Technology, a Morgan Hill, Calif., producer of RFID tags and readers, and WJ Communications, a San Jose, Calif., RF semiconductor company, has led to the development of a device that’s about 50 percent smaller than a conventional RFID reader.
Alien's Pounds

The new reader, which was designed and built by WJ Communications based on specifications provided by Alien, measures 3 1/2 by 2 1/8 by 1/2 inches (excluding the antenna and power supply), compared to Alien’s current readers, which are about 7 by 10 by 2 inches. "Although it still requires an [external] antenna, it's far more convenient from a real-world deployment standpoint," says Richard Woodburn, director of semiconductor product line management at WJ Communications. He says that it is possible to place the reader in a greater number of locations—including ceilings, walls and countertops—and out of the way of equipment and people.

The small reader includes the RF and electronic circuitry required to read and program Auto-ID Center Class 1 EPC tags. The circuit boards—designed and manufactured by WJ Communications—integrate with an external power supply and antenna to create a complete reader solution. The units work with handhelds, printers and various industrial devices. They will become commercially available in the fourth quarter of 2003.

But the size advantage isn’t the only selling point. The readers also provide "robust operation in cluttered RF environments," says James Mravca, senior vice president of strategic marketing and business development for WJ Communications. Both Alien and WJ Communications declined to reveal pricing, but they said the readers will be less expensive than many other readers presently on the market.

While Alien will continue to sell its own line of readers, the partnership will allow the company to expand its product line, improve its pricing margins and, if successful, gain market share. And the partnership gives WJ Communications entrée into the rapidly growing RFID marketplace. The firm presently supplies chips to wireless and landline telecommunications markets as well as the CATV industry. Although WJ Communications designed the smaller reader, the two companies will collaborate on more sophisticated devices over the next few years.

The end goal, says Thomas Pounds, vice president of corporate development and product strategy at Alien Technology, is to enable "a more ubiquitous deployment of reader devices and thereby improve overall system utility. The strategic partnership addresses one of the major needs for widespread RFID adoption: the availability of compact, low-cost, high-performance readers."

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