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RFID Finds Flavor at Izzy's Ice Cream Shop

EPC Gen 2 tags and readers constantly update a list of the currently available varieties, making customers happy and boosting sales.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jun 07, 2010Izzy's Ice Cream Café is no ordinary ice cream parlor. The 10-year-old shop, located in Saint Paul, Minn., prepares small batches of artisan varieties—with such names as Salted Caramel and Summit Oatmeal Stout (made with a locally brewed beer)—as well as more standard fare, like vanilla or bubble gum. And it recently launched an RFID system to help inform customers about its ever-changing menu of flavors—with updates available in near-real time—as well as to provide a quick and easy way to keep the store's signage up to date.

"I'd heard lots of stuff about RFID," says Jeff Sommers, who runs Izzy's along with his wife, Lara Hammel. "I had read a story about lawyers using RFID to track case files, and realized that the technology might work for us, too."

Jeff Sommers, standing next to a display showing Izzy's available ice cream flavors, holds an RFID-enabled label and its bracket used by his store.

Frozen dairy treats and paper files are worlds apart, however, when it comes to the performance of the passive, low-cost RFID tags that Sommers wanted to use. So he partnered with AbeTech, an RFID systems integrator based in the nearby city of Rogers, in order to design a system that would function reliably despite the moist and metal-rich environment inside Izzy's two refrigerated ice cream display cases (also known as dipping cabinets). Moisture and metal materials can interfere with the RF signals transmitted between the tags and the reader.

Izzy's fastened a Confidex Steelwave Micro EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tag to the back side of each of the hard plastic labels it uses to identify the flavors of ice cream it sells. Each tag is encoded with a unique ID number associated with the specific flavor noted on the label to which it is adhered. When an employee removes an empty ice cream container from the display case and replaces it with a new flavor, he or she also replaces the label. These labels are positioned onto aluminum brackets that Sommers had custom-made for the RFID system. The brackets enable a buffer of air between the tag and the cabinet's metal frame, which prevents RF interference when the reader inside the case transmits its signal.

A trickier part of the design, Sommers says, involved getting the reader antennas correctly positioned within the dipping cabinets. The antennas were initially mounted on the cabinets' doors, but when the doors were open, this caused RF interference. AbeTech then tried several other configurations, including placing the antennas at the bottom of the display cases, below the ice cream. However, he says, nothing worked. Eventually, the company was able to suspend the antennas from the top inside of the case, and this proved effective.

In the final configuration, Sommers says, the case was fitted with four antennas, manufactured by Impinj, and powered by a single Impinj Speedway reader mounted under the case.

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