New Zebra Reader Promises Real-Time RFID Data Capture

The company's ATR7000 overhead reader provides real-time location data for retailers and warehouses using UHF RFID tags on assets, inventory and personnel, while a hybrid solution with an optical camera and an RFID reader tracks space usage as trailers or containers are packed.
Published: April 24, 2019

Tracking and printing solutions company Zebra Technologies has released a new reader that enables real-time location system (RTLS) solutions with passive tags. The company’s new ATR7000 overhead reader is designed for use in warehouses and stores, as well as for other businesses, and provides location data regarding tagged items or personnel in real time.

The new reader is designed to provide more accurate location data, the company reports—with inexpensive tags, thereby reducing costs and maintenance—than traditional RTLS solutions. Zebra demonstrated its new products at this year’s RFID Journal LIVE! conference, held this month in Phoenix, Ariz. Both the ATR7000 and Zebra’s handheld MC3300 family of readers were among the finalists in the Best New Product category for the RFID Journal Awards.

Zebra’s ATR7000 overhead reader

The ATR7000 overhead reader automatically captures the presence of tagged assets and individuals wearing RFID badges. With Zebra’s software, the device enables companies to identify, locate and track tags or badges in real time, as well as receive alerts based on that data. The reader’s location data falls typically within a range of 2 feet when the device is used with standard UHF RFID tags.

The reader is designed to enable new levels of continuous and autonomous visibility “from dock door to every inch of a warehouse space,” according to Altaf Mulla, Zebra’s director of RFID product management. Both handheld and fixed reader portals come with their limits, he says, since portals can only track data when tags are within range of a fixed reader, while handheld units require that an employee walk throughout a location to physically scan tags.

The ATR7000 overhead reader was built to enable the collection of real-time data regarding assets or personnel moving around a facility. It captures tag reads with what the company calls its wide-angle integrated antenna array reader. Additionally, the reader’s built-in parallel, multi-transmit and receive architecture is built to provide a wide area of coverage per reader, along with location accuracy. To accomplish this, Mulla explains, the reader electronically steers and processes several hundred narrow flashlight-style beams simultaneously.

Each time a tag is read, a heat map is created using hundreds of beams that are pointed in all 360-degree azimuth directions, estimating the tag location. This reader architecture and associated RTLS software (known as CLAS, for Configuration, Location Analytics Software) is what gives the Zebra RTLS solution its high performance, Mulla says.

Zebra’s tags are specially designed for the ATR7000 solution as well, Mulla says. “The right tags are key to maximizing the performance and benefits of the RFID system,” he states. In fact, the firm developed high-performance tags specifically to provide extended read range, despite tag orientation, along with faster tag reads. “The extended read range, combined with the high sensitivity of the ATR7000, ensures that even tags at the edge of the coverage zone are easily captured.”

The RTLS reader solution can cover everything from a single dock door to a full warehouse or manufacturing site. The system provides data indicating tags’ locations, as well as the direction in which they are moving. Distribution centers, warehouses and other businesses can use the reader to view the loading and unloading of tagged parcels, or the direction of assets, such as tools or equipment, moving into and out of a facility or zones. The system can also be employed to view the movements of personnel, for the purpose of collecting safety- or management-based data.

The software analyzes the collected data and can provide alerts based on that information, as well as historical data for analytics that can help a company increase productivity and efficiency. The CLAS software configures, aggregates and triangulates the locations of tagged assets, then streams that data to a business application, such as a company’s warehouse-management system, thereby reducing development times. This software may be used along with other third-party application software, or with Zebra’s enterprise location software, like Savannah.

Additionally, Zebra is combining RFID with other technologies to enable solutions designed to meet such challenges as intelligent load planning of shipping containers or trailers, according to Mike Petersen, Zebra’s head of global product and solutions marketing. When it comes to new product development, he says, “We have an engineering strategy with a platform-based model.” The company, therefore, develops a platform so that the core architecture is used in numerous products, enabling those goods to get to market faster, with improved quality. “If they build a solution around one product,” he adds, “now it works with another product” within that product line.

In January 2019, Zebra released its MC3300R and MC3390R handheld readers, which offer increased capabilities beyond those of the company’s predecessor handheld reader models, the MC3190Z and MC9190Z (see Zebra Introduces Two New Handheld RFID Readers). That means the new models provide greater reading speed, as well as double the read range, to about 60 feet.

The readers can be used for both long- and short-range reading, Petersen says, adding, “We believe the smaller form-factored MC3330R and MC3390R are the ideal solutions for customers for RFID purposes.” The handhelds are Android-based and come with a 64-bit processor and 4 gigabytes of RAM.