NXP, Siemens Demo Bulk Reading of EPC Gen 2 HF Tags

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

The two companies have collaborated to highlight key capabilities of the candidate EPC Gen 2 standard for high-frequency passive RFID tags, through a demonstration that simulates methods for tracking pharmaceutical products.

Chipmaker NXP Semiconductors and Siemens' IT Solutions and Services arm have devised a demonstration project to illustrate the capabilities of RFID tags complying with the candidate EPC Gen 2 high-frequency (HF) air-interface standard, as well as to educate RFID systems integrators and other RFID industry stakeholders regarding the benefits and capabilities of the candidate HF standard.

EPCglobal, an RFID industry group working to advance the adoption of RFID technology in the supply chain, has been developing and testing a protocol for a 13.56 MHz passive tag for more than two years, and is now close to ratifying the specification. NXP and Siemens are carrying out the project at NXP's Application and System Center (ASC)—formerly known as the RFID Reference Design Center—near Graz, Austria, with the goal of promoting the HF tag standard's capabilities for applications in tracking pharmaceutical products.

A tag made with the prototype NXP Icode HF RFID chip

Passive high-frequency RFID tags have been used for many years for such applications as access control and work-in-process production tracking. The International Standards Organization (ISO) has developed a number of RFID standards, such as ISO 15693 and 14443, that specify air-interface and data-exchange protocols for HF tags. But in the supply chain, companies employing EPC Gen 2 UHF tags for some applications and HF tags for others want to be able to use common features across both types of tags. For example, if businesses store expiry data in the user data section of the EPC Gen 2 UHF tags attached to cardboard cases, they could utilize that same section to store expiry data on the EPC Gen 2 HF tags adhered to sellable units. This common data structure is one of the benefits an EPC HF tag standard will provide (see Moving Forward on an HF EPC Standard).

In the pharmaceuticals industry, drugmakers are looking to RFID as a means of tracking drug products at the item level, in response to emerging electronic pedigree regulations. Some firms, including GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, are already using HF tags compliant with the ISO 15693 standard (see GlaxoSmithKline Tests RFID on HIV Drug and Pfizer Using RFID to Fight Fake Viagra). The candidate EPC HF standard is compatible with the 15693 standard, along with other older HF standards, including ISO 14443 and ISO 18000-3. This backward compatibility ensures that end users already employing RFID readers that encode and read tags compliant with these other standards will also be able to utilize those same devices to read the new tags, through firmware upgrades.

One major difference between existing ISO HF standards and the candidate EPC Gen 2 HF standard is data speed, explains Martin Schatzmayer, who heads the ASC. The EPC candidate allows for simultaneously reading a much larger population of HF tags, he says, compared with ISO standard tags. Using tags containing a prototype NXP Icode HF RFID chip that is compliant with the candidate EPC HF standard, Schatzmayer says, NXP and Siemens will be able to demonstrate the ability to read up to 800 tags at once, per the candidate standard specifications. At present, however, the lab has created a sampling of only 100 tags, so that is the number of tags currently being read in bulk. Still, he notes, interrogating 100 HF tags simultaneously is a step up from what is capable with HF tags compliant with older ISO standards.

"It's a bit hard to find comparable numbers," Schatzmayer says, "because it is dependent on the application. But my guess would be that you could read only about 60 [ISO standard HF tags] at once in a comparable environment."

According to Schatzmayer, the candidate EPC HF standard is capable of reading more tags at once, compared to older standards, because it relies on the same data-processing protocol used in UHF Gen 2 tags. "The handling of the tag data is faster than with older HF standards," he states. This is important to end users, he adds, because it should allow them to encode and read tags adhered to products, such as bottles of pills, at high speeds, and could pave the way for integrating RFID tagging into existing high-speed packaging systems.

NXP and Siemens worked to make the bulk HF tag-reading demonstration project as similar to likely real-world use cases as possible, by adding the HF tags to individual drug containers and blister packs of pharmaceutical products, then moving the tagged packaging through a simulated end-to-end supply chain, wherein they would be read while moving quickly through material-handling equipment onto which RFID readers are mounted. OBID i-scan LR2000 interrogators, manufactured by Feig Electronic, are used to encode and read the EPC Gen 2 HF tags. In April 2009, Feig released firmware for the reader that complies with the EPC Gen 2 HF candidate standard (the company is the first and only such interrogator manufacturer to have released such drivers, according to NXP).

EPCglobal decided to develop an HF passive tag standard—more accurately, to resurrect an older initiative to create such a standard—in early 2006, after conducting a battery of tests to compare the functionality of HF and UHF passive tags in tracking individual items (as opposed to cases or pallets). Based on the test results, the organization determined that it would complete work in developing an HF tag standard (see EPCglobal Developing HF Tag Standard).

Gay Whitney, EPCglobal's director for standards development, says the ratification process for the candidate HF standard is ongoing. "The [intellectual property (IP)] declaration review that is part of the EPCglobal standards development process has been completed," she says, but "additional concerns about IP have been raised, and we are working rapidly to conclude on these issues so that the specification may proceed to ratification. Both [EPCglobal's] Business Steering Committee and [its] Technical Steering Committee have recommended that the specification be ratified pending completion of this final review."

The IP review process is designed to allow industry representatives within the working group to present any intellectual property held by their companies, in order to verify that a standard will not infringe on any IP rights held by those firms, thereby ensuring that the final standard can be offered free of royalties. This takes place early in a standard's development, and again once a standard is ready to be ratified, in order to determine if any changes made to the standard in the interim infringe on IP. In the case of the EPC Gen 2 HF standardization process, a chipmaker that Whitney declines to name (and is not part of the working group) presented the group with concerns regarding possible IP violations. But these concerns are being addressed, she says, and should not impact the tag standard, or EPCglobal's ability to offer it free of royalties.

NXP has been closely monitoring the standard-development process, Schatzmayer says, and the prototype Icode EPC HF chip was designed in accordance to the candidate standard. According to NXP, samples of the chips are available now. Once the standard is ratified, the company plans to ramp up production and have the chips available to tag makers in large volumes within six months.