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MPI Rolls Out Label Applicator

A new device writes data to preprinted labels containing RFID transponders and then applies the labels to packaging.
By Bob Violino
Oct 01, 2003By Jonathan Collins

Oct. 2, 2003 -- Today, most companies using smart labels buy printed labels that come with prewritten RFID transponders and then apply the labels to pallets and cartons. But a certain percentage of the labels are ineffective because the transponders don’t work—either the chip is faulty or the connection between the antenna and the chip is broken.
The 360 RW
Items tagged with the faulty labels can’t be tracked. MPI Label Systems says it’s solved this problem with the first label applicator head to test and write to embedded RFID tags in preprinted labels. The Sebring, Ohio-based company demonstrated the new machine—dubbed the 360 RW label applicator—at a recent trade show.

The 360 RWlets suppliers simultaneously test and write data to a tag embedded in a self-adhesive preprinted label and affix the label to a pallet or package. MPI says the device will save companies time and money and will eliminate problems resulting from using labels with malfunctioning transponders. The 360 RW's ability to test transponders is essential, says Gerard Kelly, general manager at MPI's corporate machine division, which will sell and service the 360 RW label applicator. "Currently about 30 percent of the transponders we are getting do not work."

Wal-Mart has dictated that, starting in January 2005, its top 100 suppliers must put RFID tags on pallets and cases shipped to Wal-Mart distribution centers and stores. MPI believes that to comply with this requirement, most large manufacturers will institute RFID labeling and tagging as part of their packaging.

MPI's demonstration model is the only 360 RW label applicator that has been made so far, although the company says it will be able to build and develop additional machines to order within two to four weeks. But despite interest in the product—spurred by Wal-Mart's RFID requirement—MPI believes that significant sales are still a year or two off. "A lot of companies are tire-kicking in regard to deploying RFID right now," says Kelly.

The new machine is currently capable of validating, writing to and affixing self-adhesive labels to pallets and cartons at a rate of 25 labels per minute. But the company says that as the product evolves, it will be able to achieve rates as high as 50 labels per minute.

First, the machine’s read-write head inspects each label's transponder. If the transponder is defective, the label is discarded. If the transponder is working properly, the head will write an EPC number and possibly other information to the transponder and then affix the label to the item.

The 360 RW currently works with high-frequency (13.56 MHz) tags, but the company plans to develop a model that works with ultra-high-frequency (915 MHz) tags. According to MPI, the company will customize each read-write head to fit the application, transponder type and frequency. Initially, each read-write head will work only in one frequency. Eventually, the company expects to offer read-write heads that will be able to automatically detect a transponder’s frequency and then write to the tag.

The 360 RW is priced at $15,000 for the head; full pricing will be based on the configuration and associated services. The machine accepts preprinted RFID labels in roll form, which MPI also makes. The price for the labels will vary according to the amount and type of graphics printed on the label, the type of material and adhesive used to make the label, and the type of transponder. The company expects the labels will cost $.70 to $1.20 each. The transponder remains the largest single expense (at least 95 percent) and the biggest obstacle to wider use of RFID technology.

The 360 RW will also accept some labels and transponders from other manufacturers depending on their format. With Wal-Mart’s deadline looming, vendors are gearing up to provide ways for supplies to tag their products. Zebra Technologies, a leader in bar-code printing technologies, recently unveiled its own machine for embedding RFID transponders in labels (see Zebra Unveils RFID Label Maker).

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