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How to Tag Problem Products

Many products are difficult to track with RFID, but good system design and precise tag placement can overcome most hurdles. Here's what you need to know to tag successfully.
By Mark Roberti
Jun 21, 2004—Companies that manufacture products that are made of—or packaged in—materials that are not "RF friendly" are concerned about how they are going to meet mandates from retailers. It’s difficult to tag many liquid products, because water absorbs electromagnetic radiation at UHF frequencies (868 to 956 MHz). And UHF waves bounce off of metal, making it difficult to read tags on canned goods, items in foil wrapping and other products made of metal or contained in metal packaging.

Gillette puts a tag where there's an air gap in the case

These are not the only materials that cause problems. RF energy is absorbed by containers made with carbon fibers, which are often used in the electronics industry to prevent electrical components from being damaged by electrostatic discharges. RF energy is also absorbed by containers designed to be used in microwave ovens. And frozen foods can be a problem, because the tags often fall off cases with frost on them.

Retailers are requiring tags on cases—which may be in random orientation to a reader antenna—to be read on conveyors traveling at up to 540 feet per minute. This is doable, even with products that are not RF friendly. With smart strategies—good system design, precise tag placement and changes to business processes—it’s possible to tag almost any item so it can be read reliably.

1. Consider tag and reader antenna placement carefully. It's obviously easier to read a tag if you don't have to read through the product that it's on. So wherever possible, it's better to have a reader antenna facing the side of a container, carton or case with the RFID tag on it. Since it's not always possible to control the orientation of an object, it makes sense to set up reader antennas on all sides of a conveyor, door or portal where you want to read tags.

Many UHF readers on the market today support two, four or even eight antennas (some come with a single internal antenna). The reader uses a multiplexer to turn on and off antennas in rapid sequence. By placing reader antennas above, below, to the left and to the right of where the tagged product will travel, you can create a "tunnel" that greatly increases the chances of reading the tag on the product, regardless of the product's orientation to the reader.

It's also important to consider the placement of the tag on the case. In many instances, you have to choose a location on the case where the tag will not be affected by the contents of the case (more on that below). But you also need to consider how cases typically travel on conveyors in your facilities and how they are stacked on pallets. If cases are always stacked the same way, then it makes sense to put the tag on the side of the case that will face outward when it’s on a pallet.
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