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The End of Trial and Error

The RFID Alliance Lab conducted more than 5,000 tests on the 10 commercially available UHF EPC tags. This article, adapted from the lab’s first report, will help companies make smart decisions about which tags are best for their products.
By Daniel Deavours
Feb 01, 2005—All around the world, companies are preparing to deploy RFID systems based on EPCglobal’s Class 1 and Class 0 Electronic Product Code specifications. Many companies are struggling to find the right UHF tag for their particular products. They are placing tags on cases of razors, bottled water, canned soup and myriad other products, and sending the cases round and round on a conveyor. When a tag can’t be read on a particular case, companies change the tag’s location on the case and try again. Most of these tests are unscientific. What’s worse, this trial-and-error approach is time-consuming, labor-intensive and wasteful.

To provide reliable, unbiased information that end users can employ to make decisions about which tags are likely to perform best on particular product types, the RFID Alliance Lab, a not-for-profit facility, tested 10 UHF EPC tags that were available in commercial quantities in October 2004. The tags were from Alien Technology, Avery Dennison, Matrics (now owned by Symbol) and UPM Rafsec.

The lab test results (see graphs) show how each tag performed in “free air”—that is, the tag was not attached to or near any product or surface. These tests provide a baseline for judging the tags. They show how the tags perform under ideal conditions, and since all environmental factors were scientifically controlled, the tests show differences in performance that are attributable only to the design and construction of the tag (some tags are tuned to work near water and don’t work well in free air). Free-air testing also reveals how tags will perform around “easy,” or “RF-friendly,” materials such as dry cardboard containers that are empty or filled with RF-friendly products such as paper towels.

Because water and metal can greatly affect the performance of the tags, we also tested the tags on a metal plate and on an aquarium filled with water. When an RFID tag is placed very close to an object, that object can change the characteristics of the antenna in several ways. Since nearly all RFID tag antennas are resonant (they respond in a narrow frequency band), materials close to antennas can alter their resonant frequency. Antennas on tags designed to work well near some products can be detuned if placed near other products. Materials can also reflect RF energy and interfere with the reader-tag communication. As with the free-air tests, we carefully controlled all of the environmental factors that could affect the results of the metal and water tests. The aim was to ensure that any differences in performance were due to the characteristics and design of the tags and not to external factors, such as electromagnetic interference.
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