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How to Select the Right RFID Tag

Do you need high-frequency or ultrahigh-frequency tags? Passive or active? And what about form factor? Here's what you should consider before you go shopping.
By Jill Gambon
Oct 15, 2007—The growing number of radio frequency identification tags on the market, combined with the rapid evolution of technology and the emergence of standards for passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags, is creating a plethora of choices for businesses looking to deploy RFID. There are many factors to consider when evaluating and selecting tags, including the business case driving the deployment, the contents of the items being tagged, the required read range and the processes impacted by the introduction of RFID technology.

RFID tags contain a microchip and antenna, and come in a wide variety of sizes and form factors. Some are as small as a grain of rice and encased in glass, while others are enclosed in plastic and the size of a key fob or credit card. Still others, known as smart labels, are embedded in paper. Some are disposable, while others can be reused. Costs vary widely, too, depending on the form factor, the amount of data the tag can store and the volume of tags purchased.

With the increasing use of RFID technology and the adoption of standards for some categories of tags by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and EPCglobal, tag prices have been falling. Electronic Product Code (EPC) passive UHF tags, widely used in supply-chain applications, cost about 7 cents each. Active (battery-powered) tags,commonly deployed for tracking assets over longer distances, generally cost upwards of $50.

There are other key distinctions as well. Active tags transmit signals to an RFID interrogator and can be read from up to 300 feet away, while passive tags lack their own power source and transmitter. When radio waves from an RFID interrogator reach the passive tag's antenna, the energy is converted into electricity to power the tag's microchip. The tag can then transmit the chip's stored data to the interrogator.

A tag's microchip typically carries a maximum of 2 KB of data—enough capacity to store basic information about the tagged item. Some tags are being designed to hold just a 96-bit serial number. Such tags are cheaper to manufacture and appropriate for applications in which the tag is thrown away with the product packaging. Some tags have chips with read-only capabilities, with information stored on the tag during manufacturing that cannot be altered; others have read-write functionality, allowing data to be added at various stages.

Tags operate at different radio frequency bands, such as low, high, ultrahigh and microwave. There are advantages and disadvantages to each frequency, depending on the application. For instance, low-frequency (LF) tags, which operate at 125 kHz to 134 kHz, are less subject to interference and are generally better suited for products with high water content. But LF tags have a read range of just one foot, and the data transfer rate is slow. High-frequency (HF) tags operate at 13.56 MHz and can be read from less than 3 feet away. They transmit data faster than LF tags, but they consume more power. UHF tags, which operate between 866 MHz to 960 MHz, can transmit data faster and farther—10 to 20 feet—than HF and LF tags, but radio waves don't pass through items with high water content at these frequencies. And Microwave tags, which operate at 5.8 GHz, have high transfer rates and can be read from as far as 30 feet away, but are power-hungry and costly.
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