Readers’ Views on Tag Costs and Performance

By Mark Roberti

Our recent online polls show you want RFID tags that perform consistently, but you're divided over whether cost or performance is most important.

One of the great things about publishing online is that readers can respond easily and instantly to stories with their own opinions. Many visitors to the RFID Journal site post messages on our bulletin boards and/or answer our weekly polls. And sometimes, the results of the polls are surprising.

Such was the case two weeks ago, when we asked readers to weigh in on the most important factor in a radio frequency identification system. Seventy-two respondents said "low cost" was their priority, narrowly edging out the 71 people who felt "great performance" was more important. Twelve voters said they "don't know" (see What's the most important factor in an RFID system?). That surprised me because manufacturers facing mandates have told me over the past 18 months that their biggest problem is offsetting the cost of the tags with internal efficiencies and labor savings.

Last week, we asked about your biggest concern when purchasing RFID tags. Only 20 percent of 122 respondents said "read range" was the biggest consideration. Fifty-five percent said "consistent performance" and 18 percent said “the number of dead tags" was the top issue (see When purchasing RFID tags, which is your biggest concern?). It's surprising that both consistency and dead tags are not bigger issues.

You can always come up with ways to offset short read distances, but consistency is critical to designing and implementing an RFID system. Dead tags contribute directly to the cost of deployment, unless your contract stipulates that you will get a refund or credit for each dead tag. But even if you don't have to pay for dead tags, rejecting one out of every five tags slows down high-speed labeling machines.

So perhaps my concern that Gen 2 Electronic Product Code tags will be too expensive is unfounded (see The Price of Gen 2). End users want cheap tags, but they want tags that work—and work consistently.

Most current UHF EPC tags don't perform consistently, as the second report of the RFID Alliance Lab shows (see Lab Test Exposes EPC Tag Performance). And some vendors are sticking end users with far too many dead and quiet tags. These issues increase the cost of deployments for end users.

Gen 2 should deliver the performance end users crave. Gen 2 tags might perform inconsistently at first, and there might be a lot of dead tags in the first batches that hit the market later this year. But I expect to see the quality and consistency of products improve quickly for two reasons.

First, there will be intense competition among vendors. So far, seven have said they will make product based on the Gen 2 protocol (compared with only four that made Gen 1 tags). So if one maker's tags aren't up to par, end users can turn to other vendors. The second thing that will push companies to improve their products is objective reports on the quality and performance of the tags, such as the ones provided by the RFID Alliance Lab.

But cost is going to continue to be a big issue, and vendors have to look for ways to reduce the cost of the tags even as they improve performance, quality and consistency. Is that possible, you might ask? I believe it is. Large companies such as Avery Dennison, Intermec, Symbol and Texas Instruments, as well as innovative startups such as Alien Technology, are betting heavily on Gen 2. These companies know that if they can deliver tags that perform well consistently at a competitive price, they will be the big winners when RFID takes off. I wouldn't bet against any of them.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.