RFID in a Day Attracts Label Companies, Brands

By Claire Swedberg

SMAG Graphique is showcasing how RFID technology can be used for its label-converting equipment customers, as it recently released two new converting machines for UHF RFID-enabled product labels.

French label-converting company SMAG Graphique has been expanding its label equipment portfolio to include RFID-based systems that provide inlay insertion, encoding and control (validating the RFID functionality as well as verifying the encoding process). The company recently brought approximately 165 potential RFID technology users to its headquarters in Paris, France, so they could view how the technology is being used and the benefits it provides to retailers and other companies that require automated access to digital data via a product's label. RFID technology providers Nordic ID and Avery Dennison also participated in the event.

SMAG has provided label-converting solutions for high-value labels for approximately 40 years. These printed roll-to-roll label-converting machines are used for labels that are applied to premium products, such as wine, cosmetics, perfumes, handbags and other merchandise, explains Sandro Cardoch, SMAG's business developer and RFID specialist. "They like to have a beautiful label attached to their products," he says, "and that's what we do."

In fact, Cardoch says, the company has been among the top European suppliers for such narrow-web label equipment for the past 30 years. Around 70 percent of the firm's sales are in Europe, with the rest in North America and other parts of the world. Recently, with growth of the digital printing market, the company began looking at ways to innovate and diversify its offerings to compete with a new and changing market.

About a decade ago, SMAG Graphique began providing a machine capable of label converting that enables the addition of RFID inlays into each label. More recently, however, the company has added the functionality of encoding and control systems. SMAG now offers three versions of its RFID-enabled Iconnect machines. One (the Iconnect-c) offers converting only; RFID wet inlays can be inserted into each label to make it intelligent, and the machine enables the application of RFID inlays at a rate of up to 120 meters per minute. The second version (Iconnect-e) provides control—an additional validation process that ensures the tag remains readable. The third version offers both encoding and control; the control feature ensures that the tag within the label can be read effectively at specified distances so that it can operate as required by an end user.

SMAG's customers consist of label-printing companies that create their own custom label products that they then sell to brands and pharmaceuticals. Additionally, the firm sells its machines directly to some end users that utilize the equipment to print and encode the RFID-enabled labels for their own products as they are manufactured onsite. For the past two years, for instance, a pharmaceutical company in South Carolina has been using SMAG Graphique equipment to convert and encode its own labels for products that it sells to hospitals.

SMAG chose to host its RFID in a Day event because RFID technology use is growing, with more companies now seeking RFID-enabled labels. The event was held in June to bring awareness to its existing and potential customers about what RFID can accomplish. The response was greater than the company expected, Cardoch says. The event was focused on an international audience; the first two days targeted French-speaking customers, while the third day was presented to English-speaking speakers.

Avery Dennison provided passive UHF RFID inlays and shared information about the technology, while Nordic ID conducted some live demonstrations that illustrated how smart labels can be used in a retail environment. Additionally, VFP Ink Technologies printed circuit boards with conductive ink, while Polytec PT provided conductive ink-curing processes for the printing of RFID antennas.

SMAG contributed its own equipment for the live demonstrations, Cardoch reports, with the inlays embedded and encoded. Additionally, he says, "We gave seminars to distributors and customers about intelligent labels and RFID technology itself, including what it is and how they can benefit from having the product in their portfolio." The firm also demonstrated ways in which its customers, such as brands and retailers, can use intelligent labels.

Of those in attendance, Cardoch says, approximately 40 percent had some familiarity with RFID but needed to know more. The other 60 percent, he notes, had little to no experience with the technology. That group included brand owners that would be using the RFID-enabled labels, as well as converting companies looking to expand their product offerings.

RFID technology deployment is taking place most commonly among high-value brands, Cardoch says. "There is a lot of demand for traceability today," he adds. By building RFID directly into labels, brands can manage the locations of products on a single-item level, throughout the supply chain, without applying additional tags directly to products (which could spoil the aesthetics). In some cases, these companies hope to gain not only visibility but also marketing analytics, in order to better understand where a product goes, when this occurs and how it is selling in specific locations and with certain demographics.

SMAG's converting machine can also enable the insertion of NFC 13.56 MHz labels, compliant with the ISO 14443 standard, which can be used for authentication and are readable with iOS- or Android-based smartphones. Encoding functionality is currently only available for UHF tags, Cardoch says, though the company is conducting research into the potential inclusion of NFC technology for encoding. Thus far, he reports, the greatest interest lies in UHF labels, which enable supply chain members to locate and track goods as they are moved from the point of manufacture to stores.

"NFC is one-to-one technology," Cardoch says, meaning the short read range requires an RFID-enabled device like a mobile phone to be within millimeters of a single reader to capture a tag's unique ID. "UHF is one-to-many, and that speed of communication is what our customers want." The greatest interest for the UHF-enabled labels, he adds, lies in the retail supply chain, pharmaceuticals and baggage tracking for airlines.

The objective of the RFID in a Day event, the company explains, was to promote the technology to help its customers compete as RFID-based intelligent labels proliferate. Cardoch reports that feedback from the event was positive, stating, "They were all engaged and interested in learning more," and were ultimately taking steps to implement the technology. "We were surprised to see how much interest there was."

Some companies are investigating the use of tags with dual functionality for both UHF (for inventory management and supply chain tracking) and NFC (to engage with customers via their smartphones). SMAG's factory and headquarters is in France, and it also maintains offices in Calgary, Lithuania and Bogotá, Colombia, in its efforts to reach a global market.