EECC Study Expands Structure to Test IoT-based RFID Tags

The European EPC Competence Center's latest annual report addresses the functionality of a widening variety of UHF RFID tags that can come with impedance-based sensors, high memory, greater sensitivity, more security and improved sustainability.
Published: October 16, 2019

Throughout the past decade, RFID tags and the applications for which they are used have been diversifying and growing more complex. In response to the expanding number of specialized UHF RFID tag products and the uses cases for them, the European EPC Competence Center (EECC) has released a four-part survey aimed at testing all facets of functionality for tags that can feature high or low memory, as well as sensor functionality; offer higher sensitivity of predecessor tags; and, in the case of one line of products, be recyclable.

The result is a 650-page study containing more than 2,000 diagrams isolating a variety of conditions and performance for 451 different tags. EECC has offered its annual survey for more than a decade. The European association was formed by GS1 Germany, Deutsche Post DHL and Metro Group in 2004 to share UHF RFID technology and EPCIS information.

EECC’s Conrad von Bonin

Since launching the survey in 2007, the organization has found that year over year, tags have been gaining sensitivity and functionality, according to Conrad von Bonin, EECC’s CEO. The study, in fact, began with just 21 tags being tested using four measurements, and the resulting survey was 36 pages in length. Since then, the group has expanded the survey to include 27 measurements for each of the 451 tags.

For the 2019 survey, the group assimilated all major UHF RFID tags on the market within the 800 to 1,000 MHz frequency range. The measurements were selected based on the requests of potential customers, von Bonin says, as well as trends that EECC sees in the market. The group restructured the survey to include four chapters this year, in order to describe the behavior and functionality of a growing number of Internet of Things (IoT)-based devices and applications.

The first chapter involves orientation and speed for a single tag read, while the second covers measurements related to proximity effect or other ways in which tags may influence each other. The third chapter focuses on sensor functionality and the material interactions effect of RFID read and write performance, and the last examines characteristics related to performance around or as part of an IoT network.

One significant new feature of the survey was the introduction of a recyclable tag from Stora Enso, enabling RFID tags to be applied to single-use carriers, such as non-reusable containers, pallets or cardboard boxes. The group focused on products that include Alien Technology‘s Higgs 9 chip (see New Chip Offers Greater Memory, Sensitivity at Lower Price), and on how quickly the tags could be interrogated and respond when transmitting data stored in the chip’s expanded memory. Such high-memory tags are often being used in the automotive and aviation industries to track maintenance histories.

As deployments and use cases become ever more diverse, von Bonin says, a wide range of materials have been measured with the tags. He adds that as RFID technology has evolved, tag performance has not been the only characteristic companies need to consider when choosing the appropriate tag. For instance, a growing number of sensor-based tags and networked IoT-based systems means that measuring those additional features, as well as RF response to interrogation when the tags are near other IoT devices, needs to be considered.

In fact, several of the measurements used in the study focused on tag-network interaction for security and feasibility. For instance, NXP Semiconductors‘ UCODE DNA and EM Microelectronic‘s Aura-C chips both employ cryptographic methods to secure data—which EECC evaluated. Additionally, some of the tags tested come with moisture and temperature sensors, and the survey involved testing how well the tags responded in different environments.

When it comes to sustainability, EECC has heard from several end-user companies asking how sustainable RFID tags are. The question is “What will happen to tags if we have millions of them on products?”, von Bonin notes. One answer to this question is the use of Stora Enso’s product—what the company calls the first tag on the market that is recyclable. “This would be the simple answer,” he states. More significantly, when it comes to environmental impact, is RFID’s ability to increase supply chain efficiency. That improved efficiency, he says, needs to be factored into any consideration of sustainability. By managing the locations of tagged carriers (such as cartons) and the products contained within, companies can make their supply chains more efficient.

If specific goods are tracked as they move throughout the supply chain, users can better manage logistics, von Bonin says. For example, in one region of Germany, apples may be harvested and then transported to a central location in central Germany, after which some might be returned to northern Germany for sale. By viewing the RFID-based data, shippers could determine a more efficient route for those apples. This model could work with a variety of goods, ranging from meat and fresh produce to other products.

Therefore, sustainability can be a matter of single-way transportation with a recyclable tag, or non-recyclable tags used multiple times on a plastic carrier providing insight into efficiency improvement. “This also would be a sustainable solution,” von Bonin says. The survey tested three eco-tags from Stora Enso, which the team says performed equivalently to more traditional tags.

In addition, EECC tested sensor-based tags that use electric impedance to capture and send sensor data, in order to determine how well they responded in the presence of moisture and a variety of materials. Sensor tags will become more common in the future, von Bonin predicts, adding, “We are already in the future.” Sensor-based RFID tags can measure temperature and moisture levels—and in the near future, he predicts, they will be able to monitor light levels.

In some cases, tags will also be readable with multiple protocols. Lab ID, for example, offers its DF426 tag that can be read either via 13.65 MHz NFC readers compliant with the ISO 14443 standard, or via UHF RFID readers, rendering them useable for both payment solutions and logistics. “In the future,” he states, “this will happen much more often.”

“The market is growing, and the technology is developing rapidly,” von Bonin reports. Therefore, he says, the survey aims to answer questions regarding the increasingly complex tag options as they serve as intelligent IoT devices. Some companies are already utilizing the tags on their products to track temperatures and thus the shelf life of products, such as fresh food or pharmaceuticals.

Tag sensitivity has changed throughout the years. Some new tags are equipped with a highly sensitive UCODE8 or Higgs 9 chip. Since these chips are 10 to 20 times more sensitive than they were in 2007, von Bonin notes, measurements for features such as backscatter are necessary.

In conjunction with the survey release, EECC held its annual Innovation Day on Oct. 10, at which it demonstrated the latest use cases for RFID. The program included a customer journey through a simulated store, while demonstrating the benefits of RFID from the perspective of the tagged object, the store and the customer. In the store of the future, for instance, RFID could enable consumers to view data related to a particular product, based on an RFID tag read. If a customer’s buying history were stored on a retailer’s server and the customer was selecting a specific item, the tag data could prompt the displaying of information such as products her or she might like as an alternative to that item, or to be purchased with it.

Intelligence can provide features related to each product and its condition as well. For instance, with sensors and RFID, a container of yogurt could identify if it has fallen on the floor and thereby prompt its own replenishment. EECC is also exploring blockchain-based solutions using RFID technology to enable transactions. The EECC Innovation Labs have been visited by 500 end customers and more than 40,000 visitors altogether since 2006, the organization reports. The survey is available for sale at EECC’s website.