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Game Changer?

A new design that links an RFID chip to the microprocessor in a consumer electronics device makes way for many killer apps.
By Jennifer Zaino
Jan 14, 2013—For the most part, the consumer electronics industry has been sitting on the sidelines, watching as myriad companies in other sectors adopt radio frequency identification and derive benefits from the visibility the technology provides. Yes, there have been some RFID pilots and deployments, most notably Hewlett-Packard Brazil's tagging and tracking of individual inkjet printers from production through distribution. And there has been the promise of using RFID for life-cycle tracking of computers, TVs and other electronic products—that is, RFID-tagging electronics during production, tracking them through delivery to retailers, using the item-level tags to manage inventory, warranties and repairs, and, lastly, ensuring old devices are disposed of properly.

HP Brazil has demonstrated that it is possible to leverage tag information to manage recycling. But using RFID to manage consumer electronics "from cradle to grave" has remained just a promise—until now. In April, Intel unveiled a reference design for an ultrahigh-frequency RFID chip that's embedded in a device's motherboard and wired directly to the microprocessor. (Intel won the 2012 RFID Journal Award for Best Use of RFID in a Product or Service; see A New Tool for Electronics Companies.)

Illustration: Exdes | iStockphoto

The design could jump-start RFID adoption by consumer electronics makers and retailers because it enables numerous benefits, including streamlining operations, deterring theft and improving customer satisfaction. The new Windows 8 tablets are likely to be the first devices to feature this design.

Intel worked with Impinj, which developed two new RFID chips for the design: the Monza X-2K Dura and the Monza X-8K Dura. Both chips have a secure memory bank with nonvolatile (read/write) and immutable (read-only) storage that is low-power and cost-effective. The RFID chip is accessible by the processor through a standard inter-integrated circuit (I2C) interface and from a handheld or fixed RFID reader, enabling wireless bidirectional communications. The secure storage can hold information such as personal identification and manufacturing records.

"The work that Impinj has done with Intel takes the early promises of EPC and RFID to a whole other level—not just for inventory or asset control, but also being able to use the same RFID tag to provision services on those devices," says Sue Hutchinson, director of portfolio strategy for GS1 US. Manufacturers, for example, could use an RFID reader to disable an electronic product during transit, to deter theft. Once the item reaches a store, a retailer could use an RFID reader to enable the device while it's in a sealed box.

NXP Semiconductors, last year, introduced a similar interactive tool for consumer electronics—the Ucode I2C, a UHF EPC Gen 2 chip that can be embedded in a device's printed circuit board (PCB). Its I2C serial bus also enables quick communication between the RFID chip, which sends its instructions wirelessly to or from an RFID reader, and the microprocessor. As with the Intel/Impinj approach, a reader can access the chip's memory even when the device's power is off.

"We believe the I2C feature should enhance the RFID adoption rate, since it adds further value at multiple stages of the product's life cycle," says Gerry Hubers, marketing segment manager of Murata Americas, which makes the MagicStrip UHF RFID module that can be mounted on a PCB. The module can use Impinj or NXP chips and take advantage of these suppliers' key features. "Using the RFID channel as the communication path," Hubers says, "the CE product can be easily programmed, or reprogrammed, based on the end-customer requirements. This step can be done just prior to shipping, late-stage configuration, for that specific customer. Taking this approach could eliminate dedicated inventory for selective customers, since product is programmed just prior to shipment."
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