Printed BLE Label Transmits Data Up to 100 Meters

A solution from Reelables, with InPlay integrated circuits, can be activated and then transmit for up to a year via BLE, using a printed battery without toxic chemicals or heavy metals.
Published: June 9, 2023

Several logistics companies have begun attaching thin plastic labels, printed on a standard printer, to their products in order to gain near-real-time location data as those goods are moved through their facilities. The Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tags beacon every 10 seconds, using the power of a thin-film printed battery to transmit data to a gateway reader at a distance of up to 360 feet. The solution, from Reelables, serves as an alternative to traditional BLE or active radio frequency identification (RFID) solutions that require standard batteries in tags and extensive reader infrastructure, or passive systems that do not provide real-time location data.

Reelables built its labels around its printed zinc-manganese coating process to form an environmentally friendly battery directly on the inlay circuit, and the battery powers the active beaconing system-on-chip from InPlay. The company also provides the Bluetooth gateways, and it offers software application programming interfaces to capture location data, inventory audits and movement events based on the beaconing labels. The labels can be printed and activated using standard label printers that come with a barcode scanner and HF RFID functionality.

Brian Krejcarek demonstrates the solution from Reelables and InPlay.

Brian Krejcarek demonstrates the solution from Reelables and InPlay.

Reelables’ goal, according to CEO Brian Krejcarek, is to make automated tracking with active RFID or BLE accessible, as an alternative to passive UHF RFID, which has become commonplace for item-level inventory tracking. One benefit of the active functionality, Krejcarek says, is that it sends data regularly—such as every 10 seconds—and can accomplish a range of 360 feet (110 meters). In a typical warehouse, he explains, a single BLE gateway could capture data from all tagged goods. The company developed a manufacturing process for its adhesive labels that allows a battery, consisting of a coating and the lamination of two plastic films, to be fabricated on the inlay substrate.

Krejcarek co-founded Reelables in 2018 with David Stanton, with whom he’d previously worked at an energy-harvesting technology company. The two joined accelerator Y Combinator during that company’s first year, then began testing the technology to track BLE-tagged tools leveraging the smartphones in employees’ pockets as they walked around an area. They found, however, that phones do not lend themselves well to ambient BLE data in the background, so they began developing a solution with labels and a dedicated BLE gateway.

“We started finding companies that had lots of inventory and were dealing with supply chain issues,” Krejcarek recalls, “so we realized if we could inject a solution for which there was no work to deploy, then we’d be golden.” That was the genesis for the long-range transmission and single gateway to capture those tag reads. In that way, he says, “We can still provide that visibility in their supply chains without them having to do any work at all [to install] or change their workflows or their processes,” such as reading RFID tags or installing portal readers. The gateway, which the U.K.-based company makes through a third-party manufacturer, typically costs about $350.

How the System Works

Reelables says the labels can remain dormant for up to a year before being activated. There are several ways in which the labels could be activated prior to being applied to products. In the case of single-label applications, users would scan the barcode to automatically associate that serialization with the Bluetooth ID (MAC address) in the cloud-based software. The related desktop printing software would then instruct the printer to print the label, activating it automatically.

In addition, the system could be used with printed labels in bulk, by leveraging the HF RFID functionality in the tag. In such a scenario, a printer—such as a SATO label printer—could read each RFID tag ID via a 13.56 MHz transmission, then forward the collected data to the cloud, linked to the BLE ID, and the label would be printed and activated on the reel. Next, the printed and activated tag would be applied to a box, which would then begin its journey through the supply chain.

The label continually beacons every 10 seconds, and when it comes within range of a gateway reader, the latter forwards the data to the software, updating that product’s status based on its location. In that way, members of the supply chain can track the receiving, storage and shipping of every product throughout a facility. One early adopter of the technology was a company whose warehouse stores garden and lawn equipment. That business was able to use the system to know which goods were in its warehouse, as well as when they arrived and when they departed.

In some cases, companies are using the technology to track goods not only at their own facilities, but at those of their partners. To accomplish this, they could provide a gateway to their partners, or ask them to acquire one, and then install that single device on the ceiling of their facility. Thus, a product brand, for instance, could know what was in its inventory across its entire distribution network.

Battery Technology with Low Impact

By sharing data with partners, companies can anticipate when inventory levels are getting too low at a partner’s or customer’s site, then provide services such as automatically refilling stock. Additionally, having real-time data throughout the supply chain enables businesses to confirm that shipments are being delivered on time, or to identify delays. “They want to be able to tell their customer, ‘Yep, it’s on target to deliver by this date, and we know that because it’s sitting in this warehouse,'” Krejcarek says.

The battery that powers the long-distance transmissions and data storage is coated in zinc, the company reports, but with none of the lithium used in standard batteries, making it safe for use aboard an aircraft. In fact, Reelables has gained 10 airline approvals for the label to be brought onboard their planes. The company has achieved DO 160 standard approval from the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), indicating it has been environmentally tested for safety in avionics.

When it comes to recycling products on which the tag is attached, Reelables says the label has little impact. A cardboard box with the label attached to it could be put through a typical pulping process, while the label’s materials could be filtered out without creating an impact, which standard batteries with chemicals and heavy metals might. The label can also track temperatures for cold-chain goods, such as fresh foods and pharmaceuticals.

When a temperature sensor is built into a label, it can capture and log readings as tagged boxes traverse the supply chain. Every time the label comes within range of a gateway reader, historical data is transmitted. Users thus have a stamp of approval based on temperature results, or warning of a problem, and that information is stored in a warehouse-management or transport-management system. Reelables provides the labels on reels of 750, all in a hibernation state, and it is now offering them in high volumes, typically priced at less than $2 apiece in volumes of five million or more.


Key Takeaways:

  • Reelables’ labels are active BLE devices that can be printed and activated at the same time, then beacon their data every 10 minutes for up to a year.
  • The solution can be used with sensor data, enabling users to monitor the conditions to which tagged products were exposed in the supply chain, without requiring a data logger.