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Interrogators Start to Evolve

Vendors are responding to end users' needs by introducing interrogators designed for specific tasks and locations.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jun 01, 2006—In the beginning, there was an ultrahigh-frequency RFID interrogator and it was simple—a box with either an internal antenna or ports to connect two, four or eight external antennas. Whether you were reading tags on cases moving through a dock door or tags on small bottles of pills, your options were limited. But as early adopters began deploying UHF systems in the real world, they found boxy interrogators were less than ideal. They began asking vendors for RFID interrogators designed for specific applications. And the vendors have responded.

Wal-Mart has been one of the most aggressive companies in rolling out UHF systems, so it's no surprise the retailer has played a role in the evolution of RFID interrogators. The company worked with Matrics, a startup purchased by Symbol, to develop a hardened metal case that could be bolted to the floor on either side of a dock door, reducing the need to build special stands on which to mount reader antennas. The metal case also protects the interrogator and antennas from being damaged accidentally if hit by equipment in the facility. Symbol now sells the unit as the DC600 and DC400 Portal System.

RFID-enabled forklifts can help companies save money and increase read rates.

End users have also been eager for vendors to develop forklift-mounted interrogators, which can reduce the number of interrogators needed. Instead of mounting one interrogator at each of 100 dock doors to read tags on pallets moving in and out of a distribution center, companies can install one on each of 10 or 12 forklift trucks.

This has the added advantage of increasing read rates, because tags on pallets are in the read zone only a short time as the forklift passes interrogators mounted by a dock door. But the tags sit in the read zone for the entire time they are on the forklift when the interrogator is mounted on the forklift truck. Asurys, Intermec, LXE, Symbol and other vendors of RFID goods and services have introduced RFID-enabled forklifts in recent months.

The PAD3500, with a compact battery-powered interrogator module, goes wherever workers go.

RFID-enabled forklifts also can be used in combination with location tags to track the movement of tagged goods. For example, Wal-Mart is planning a pilot at some of its Sam's Club stores in which forklift interrogators capture location IDs from tags embedded in the shelves holding the pallets. By associating the location tags with the Electronic Product Codes on the goods, Wal-Mart will see if RFID can help workers keep better track of tagged stock.

To help companies conduct a small RFID tagging pilot without purchasing smart label printer-encoders, a company called Adasa has designed a mobile interrogator that's worn on a waist belt. The device, called the PAD3500, has a compact, battery-powered interrogator module developed by SkyeTek, an RFID systems designer. It receives encoding commands from middleware via Wi-Fi, encodes each tag—as adhesive inlays, rather than printed smart labels—and then verifies that the tag was encoded properly before ejecting the tag into the user's hand. The PAD3500 could also be used by workers in remote or outdoor environments, where it would be difficult to install printer-encoders.
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