Murata Developing Small On-Metal Tag for Surgical or Industrial Tool Tracking

By Claire Swedberg

The company is leveraging its RSA middleware, gained from its acquisition of ID-Solutions, while also offering its ultra-small and on-metal tags for the management of previously hard-to-track items.

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Murata Manufacturing is introducing early versions of a new on-metal tag to ease the use of passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tracking on metallic items. The small tag is designed predominantly for use in managing surgical tools, but could also work with other tools or small metallic products.

Murata is also offering middleware known as RFID System Administrator (RSA), which was originally developed and sold by ID-Solutions, which Murata acquired in June 2017. RSA supports data connection between companies’ existing IT systems and the RFID readers and printers that are being used to read the ultra-small and on-metal tags.

Gerry Hubers

The on-metal tag, which is still available only in sample versions, is being developed not only for surgical and industrial tools, but also for the tracking of metal goods such as IT or manufacturing equipment. It comes with two unique features, the company reports: its long-range transmission when mounted on metal and its small size. Murata has a patent on the coupling material that is built onto the tag to ensure that it transmits effectively on metal surfaces, using the metal surface as an extension of the antenna to enhance read range. The tag measures 6 millimeters by 2 millimeters by 2.3 millimeters (0.24 inch by 0.08 inch by 0.09 inch).

Murata, a Japanese electronic component company, designs and sells RFID reader and writer components. The company develops tags, readers and writers in-house using integrated circuits from partners, and can customize products to match a customer’s requirements. It makes HF and UHF RFID products, including ultra-small tags with a ceramic substrate, using NXP Semiconductors Ucode G2iM or Impinj Monza R6 ICs for its UHF tags, as well as NXP Icode and Ntag chips for the HF and NFC tags. The firm also sells a fingernail-sized Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Near Field Communication (NFC) device for home or building automation. Its NFC and RFID reader-writer modules are designed to be built into customers’ existing readers, and to be compact and inexpensive.

According to Gerry Hubers, Murata’s senior business-development manager, the company acquired ID-Solutions, an Italian spinoff from the University of Parma, to enable it to sell full solutions aimed at the retail, food and health-care industries.
With ID-Solutions’ research and software solutions, Hubers says, combined with Murata’s own unique RFID hardware and research and development, it will be able to provide cutting-edge solutions for its customers. “RSA simplifies the integration of their RFID system to their existing computer system,” he states, “without having to install software on individual computers, tablets, etc.”

RSA serves as middleware that controls RFID readers and other hardware, according to Nobuto Yamada, Murata’s RFID business-development product engineer, and enables tag-read data to be sent to a cloud-based server, as well as to a user’s own management software. The RSA system, he notes, is based on a Web application, so the “RSA dashboard can be viewed from any PC, tablet, smartphone on internet browser.” That dashboard, Yamada says, provides such functions as Track & Trace (to monitor a tagged item throughout a supply chain), Last Process (to show the most recent tag read event) and Availability (to display each item’s location).

Murata’s new on-metal and ultra-small tags are aimed at RFID deployments that have proven challenging in the past: the tracking of small, metallic objects on which RFID tags need to be unobtrusive. In the case of eyeglasses and jewelry, large tags can disrupt the aesthetics of high-priced luxury goods for sale. For surgical equipment, it’s imperative that the tags not get in the way of surgeons. “Definitely the tags’ small size minimizes any interference with the surgeon’s task,” Yamada says.

In all cases, the UHF versions are designed to be small enough to be affixed to a metallic object, or embedded in an object, such as in the frame of a pair of glasses. HF or NFC version tags are also being used for item identification.

Several jewelry brands plan to test Murata’s tags for supply chain management. The companies intend to use the RSA middleware to capture data and manage the readers. The jewelry makers are interested in using the technology for internal supply chain management, Hubers explains, on specific items built into many of its products.

Nobuto Yamada

For such deployments, a tag even smaller than the new on-metal tag was required. Instead, the brands will attach Murata’s ultra-small tag with an internal integrated antenna to each piece of jewelry. It can then be interrogated via a fixed reader, along with a small loop antenna to enable a read range between 10 to 15 millimeters.

The system works with handheld readers linked to an Android device via a Bluetooth connection. When it comes to handheld readers, Hubers says, ” When reading our ultra-small tag [LXMSJZNCMF-198], we often recommend Tertium Technology‘s BlueBerry reader due to the optimized near-field antenna used in this product.” Those reading tags with handheld readers can then view data about each item in the RSA app on their Android-based mobile devices. The specific reader to be used in the jewelry-tracking deployment, however, has not yet been selected.

ID-Solutions developed the RSA middleware nearly a decade ago, Hubers says, but it has been offered in full solutions with Murata hardware for only the past several months. RSA solutions, Yamada reports, are currently in operation at many company sites across Europe, and more recently in Japan.

One pilot of the system is in the planning stage at a Japanese food-manufacturing facility, Yamada says. The solution will be tested to track the location of mobile machinery used during the processing of food. The company will tag those machines and utilize handheld readers to track their location and use them as they are moved and operated throughout the facility. With that data, the company can better ensure that the machinery can be located when needed, and that it is being maintained and cleaned in a timely manner.

If the pilot goes well, Yamada says, the company (which has asked to remain unnamed) will expand the system’s use to tracking tens of thousands of pieces of equipment across 20 sites. The RSA solution can be integrated into a company’s IT system for industrial, retail and health-care purposes, among others.