Achieving Perfect Read Rates

Not long ago, the talk was about poor read rates for EPC tags. Today, end users are looking for perfection.
Published: June 1, 2009

Not too long ago, some analysts were saying that using passive UHF tags on cases and pallets in the supply chain was a nonstarter, because the tags could be read only 60 percent of the time. Often, the low read rates weren’t explained—what were the conditions of the test?—but journalists picked up on them and labeled radio frequency identification nothing but hype. Boy, how times have changed.

I sat on a panel hosted by the International RFID Business Association at the National Retail Federation’s annual trade show, which was held in New York last week. And the talk was about 100 percent read rates. Frank Cornelius, advanced manufacturing engineer at New Balance, a privately held running shoe and sports apparel company headquartered in Boston, said that his unit tagged 15,000 items and read every single tag.

“We never missed one,” he said. “We had one container with more than 170 items in it and we were able to read every item.”

Patrick Sweeney, CEO of ODIN technologies, a systems integration firm based in Dulles, Va., told the audience that his company recently completed rolling out UHF systems at distribution facilities run by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency. In order to get paid for the job, ODIN had to run a test in which every case tag on a pallet, with cases of a variety of different products, was read every time.

Perfect read rates are not achievable under all circumstances all the time, of course. Reading a passive UHF tag on a case of Coca-Cola cans in the middle of a pallet of Coca-Cola will always be a challenge (though low-cost active smart labels might solve the problem). But companies are finding that high read rates are achievable and they can develop business processes that allow them to collect the data they need.

One reason for the higher read rates with passive UHF EPC tags is the second generation air-interface protocol, which brought the best features of the Gen 1 protocol, the ISO 18000-6 protocol and other advances by the companies that developed the protocol. End users have been raving about the performance of Gen 2 tags.

RFID is never going to be perfect. Radio waves will always be affected by water, metal and environmental factors. But early adopters are proving that improvements in the technology and changes in business processes make it possible to collect the highly accurate data needed to deliver supply chain improvements.