New Short-Range UHF Reader Targets Automotive Suppliers

SICK's RFU61x is designed to capture UHF RFID tag reads at short range so that original equipment manufacturers can leverage the tags in tight or crowded assembly locations.
Published: April 16, 2019

Industrial automation sensors company SICK has released a new UHF RFID read-write device focused on assembly applications in conveyor systems in tight spaces, as well as on handling and assembly lines. SICK’s RFU61x reader, with integrated Ethernet and fieldbus interfaces, is intended to provide an alternative to 13.56 MHz HF RFID technology used at assembly sites.

The company calls the RFU61x the smallest and smartest industrial UHF reader on the market. The device measures 80 millimeters by 92 millimeters by 38 millimeters (3.15 inches by 3.6 inches by 1.5 inches). SICK demonstrated the new reader at this year’s RFID Journal LIVE! conference, held this month in Phoenix, Ariz.

The company has designed the UHF device to capture tag data in tight spaces, with a range that is adjustable to typical HF read distances. One feature, says Philipp Bordne, SICK’s RFID product manager, is the design of antenna characteristics that provide a well-defined reading zone. In that way, tagged items, such as small components under assembly, can be reliably identified in spaces where stray reads would be detrimental, despite the fact that UHF rather than HF technology is being used.

Many of SICK’s customers are automotive manufacturers that already use UHF RFID technology to track the bodies of the vehicles they assemble, and that read the tags during and after the manufacturing process. Parts suppliers in that industry, however, work in a very different environment, creating small products that are assembled in tight spaces. As such, they often employ HF technology to monitor a component carrier in tight spaces where other products are within close vicinity.

As car manufacturers began requesting that suppliers apply UHF RFID tags directly to their products, SICK started looking for options for parts suppliers to gain value from UHF as well. “We wanted to provide the industry with a solution that takes advantage of the benefits of UHF technology at an earlier stage in the value chain,” Bordne explains. One target application of the RFU61x will be the use of small transponders on parts being assembled, with a read range of up to 150 millimeters (5.9 inches). With large transponders, however, distances of 500 millimeters (19.7 inches) will become typical, according to Daniel Thomas, SICK’s business development manager for RFID.

The new reader is designed to prevent stray reads, even in tight quarters. “Many UHF readers tend to read in all directions,” Thomas states, “even if the power is dialed down.” But the RFU61x has an antenna designed to focus power only in the area where interrogation is needed. Additionally, he says, “reliable identification of the right object is secured by using integrated software filters.”

The IP67-rated RFU61x can be powered with 24-volt DC or via Power-over-Ethernet. It comes with a trigger sensor that can be powered and connected directly to it, without requiring an additional connection box. This allows a flexible and quick setup, Bordne says, which saves installation costs. The Ethernet interface supports TCP/IP, as well as such fieldbus protocols as Profinet and Ethernet/IP. Through these interfaces, the RFU61x can be connected directly to a PLC or into a user’s IT-environment and cloud-based applications.

The reader offers SICK AppSpace as an option for users who want to run additional software applications on their devices besides the standard functionality. “This feature is very interesting for systems integrators who want to provide additional value to their end customers,” Thomas notes. The same option is also available for all of SICK’s RFU6xx reader models.

Like the mid-range RFU62x reader, the smaller RFU61x comes with a multi-color LED screen on each side, and these serve as feedback indicators. Companies can use the screens to confirm a good read, or they can configure the device to signal specific indicators depending on the event, such as indicating the presence of the wrong part during an assembly process. “The device adds to SICK’s expansive UHF RFID portfolio,” Thomas states, “by providing an RFID reader for tight spaces.”

The RFU61x is expected to be made commercially available next month. Several automotive suppliers, as well as companies in the electronics, mobile robots, pharmaceuticals and packaging industries, have been testing the reader for several months, Bordne reports. So far, he says, “They like it—it’s disruptive. Its small size, combined with integrated intelligence, enables applications where they haven’t used UHF RFID before. The feedback has been outstanding.”