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CSL Has Long Range Plans for RFID Market

Convergence Systems Limited (CSL) received a lot of attention last year when it introduced a handheld passive UHF reader with more than 30 feet of range, but as this installment of RFID Update's series of company profiles shows, CSL's past and future extend well beyond that product.
Apr 01, 2009This article was originally published by RFID Update.

April 1, 2009—Convergence Systems Ltd. (CSL) raised the bar for handheld passive UHF RFID readers last fall when it introduced the CS101, which boasts a read range of more than 30 feet and end user costs of less than $2,500 (see New RFID Handheld Provides Range, Price Breakthroughs). The launch also raised the profile of the Hong Kong company, which does all its own design and production, and has 400 employees, including 70 engineers. The nine-year-old firm has strong roots in the RFID industry and was one of the first partners to work with Intel's landmark R1000 RFID reader chip (now owned by Impinj, with which CSL has a longtime relationship). CSL's managing director was in on the early days of active RFID pioneer Savi, and now the company has set its sites on the RTLS market.

"I left Savi in late 2001 and helped start CSL, so I was already actively involved in the RFID industry, no pun intended," CSL managing director Jerry Garrett told RFID Update. Garrett had first worked with Savi as a consultant, and later was its COO. Garrett then helped set up CSL, which is affiliated with Chung Nam Electronics (CNE), which he had helped launch in Hong Kong in 1997. CNE has done OEM manufacturing for many passive and active RFID companies, and its own product line includes WiFi modules, Bluetooth, Z-Wave and other wireless products. This experience ensures sister company CSL a deep and well-disciplined manufacturing partner that has proven beneficial for rapid RFID product development.

CSL's product line includes self-designed and produced passive tags, antennas, fixed-position readers, OEM reader modules and other components that have been sold for years, mostly in China. But it was the low-cost, long-range CS101 that really introduced the company's brand to the global RFID industry. The product was released last October and through March had been sold in 13 countries and attracted reseller interest in more than 20 others.

"Our goal was to build every feature into the handheld, and to have the longest range," said Garrett. "We want the handheld to replace fixed-position readers for certain applications. The coolest feature is the Geiger counter-like search function that allows you to find the item from 30 feet away and walk right up to it."

The CS101 is an IP 65-rated handheld computer running the Microsoft Windows CE 5.0 operating system with keyboard and touch screen interfaces, integrated 1D/2D bar code reader and six I/O ports. CSL quotes the CS101's read range for Gen2-standard passive UHF tags at 7 meters (23 feet) outdoors and 11 meters (36 feet) in confined indoor spaces.

CSL's vice president of product engineering Albert Lai worked with NASA and helped design Stealth aircraft, but said designing the CS101 "is definitely, by far, the most complicated and multidisciplinary project I've ever done."

The design took about nine months to go from initial planning to submission to the FCC for approval. But was it really harder than working on the Stealth project?

"I worked on shape designs to avoid radar detection for Stealth," Lai said. "We were designing a very specific thing, not a whole system. We designed the shape, and didn't have to care about the rest."

Cost control probably wasn't a big concern for the Stealth design either, but is a major driver in all of CSL's product planning. "One thing Jerry and I fundamentally agree on is that if technology doesn't reach a certain affordability level, it will never grow." That principle guides CSL's design and production, because the company wants to grow the RFID market by making products more affordable. It was an important factor in the company's decision to enter the RTLS market.

"The stumbling block for traditional WiFi RTLS systems has been price. It makes it very difficult to popularize RTLS," said Lai.

Convergence Systems' RTLS system operates in the 2.4 GHz frequency band, but is not a WiFi system. The distinction allows for less interference and greater accuracy, among other advantages, according to Garrett. The system uses time difference of arrival (TDOA) algorithms to calculate location, rather than the more commonly used received signal strength indicator (RSSI) method. CSL says its RTLS system is accurate to within 1 meter, which is a much tighter area than other WiFi RTLS systems.

The RTLS products launched in January and are major additions to CSL's product line. The company still has a crowded product development pipeline, and Garrett expects to release four or five more new products this year.

Lai feels RTLS and RFID technologies have advanced to the point where performance meets most use-case needs, and that cost is the leading obstacle to adoption. That obstacle could fall quickly. "I expect the next few years in the RFID industry will be about usage proliferation rather than improved technologies," he said. "Everything looks ready for massive expansion."

Lai, who was born in Hong Kong and went to college in the U.S., and Garrett, an American who moved to Hong Kong, plan to pay a large role in that expansion.

"Most of the products throughout the history of the RFID industry were designed by companies in North America or Japan," Lai said. "We're doing something different. We're trying to bring together American and Chinese ideas."

"Our strategic weapon is that we make everything ourselves. That gives us much more control than other vendors over product development speed, price and margins," said Garrett. "Once people try our products, they believe in us."
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