RR Donnelley Introduces Custom-Printed NFC RFID Tags

By Claire Swedberg

The company will offer tags with application-specific printed antennas, to create custom RFID labels or embed them in printed products, such as catalogs, product packaging and retail displays.

After 15 years of manufacturing and selling RFID labels that it made by converting radio frequency identification tags produced by other companies, RR Donnelley & Sons Co. is now also providing a line of passive RFID tags—both high-frequency (HF) and ultrahigh-frequency (UHF)—that it designs and manufactures with conventional passive RFID chips and a custom-printed antenna. The company not only will use the printed RFID technology to make custom RFID labels that can be affixed to items, but it can also embed the tags directly into a wide range of products, including catalogs, product packaging and retail displays.

The new printed RFID tags are intended to meet a growing demand for specific tag sizes and form factors. In the case of Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, customers are seeking to build NFC RFID tags into materials at retail locations in order to create a bridge for consumers between brick-and-mortar stores and the Internet. In this way, consumers can find out more information about a particular product, service or location, or share their own views or experiences beyond the physical store.

"While our printed RFID inlays provide unique flexibility, the value lies in the seamless incorporation of those inlays into a final printed product—whether it is a label, package, a textbook or any other RR Donnelley product," says Ronnie Sarkar, RR Donnelley's technology innovations senior VP. The company intends to debut the new printed tags at RFID Journal LIVE! 2013, being held in Orlando, Fla., from Apr. 30 to May 2, and expects them to be made commercially available this fall.

RR Donnelley, headquartered in Chicago, produces print, digital and supply chain solutions, including the printing of books, catalogs and magazines, as well as digital asset-management and publishing-automation software and logistics services. Its RFID labels are utilized in retail, defense, transportation, supply chain management, health care and manufacturing.

The latest offering targets the same industries, but provides a product customized to a client's specific needs. For example, a product manufacturer could require a customized label or product packaging with built-in NFC or RFID (UHF or HF) tags printed at RR Donnelley's own facility. This solution would contrast with the more traditional set of pre-made RFID labels that come in specific sizes and form factors.

"Customers tell us that they often encounter challenges in selecting and qualifying an inlay that isn't targeted for their specific use," Sarkar says. "We believe by offering a complete design, test and production service for RFID inlays, we can streamline that process." With the new printed label offerings, he adds, the firm's focus will now be on customizing the solution, rather than on providing stock inlays.

"Rather than say, 'Here's a stock inlay—build your program around it,'" Sarkar explains, "we can collaborate with customers to say, 'What is the goal you want this merchandising schema to accomplish? Let us help you build the finished materials around your objectives and creative strategy.'"

RR Donnelley is targeting several use cases and industries with its printed electronics. Customers could employ passive UHF RFID labels, for instance, in warehousing applications, to track inventory throughout the supply chain, or as goods are moved through a warehouse or distribution center. The labels could be customized to meet the form-factor needs of the items being monitored.

In the case of NFC labels, the company anticipates a wide variety of applications in the retail market, primarily for marketing purposes. One example that Sarkar cites is an NFC inlay built into a magazine advertisement, a catalog page or a direct-mailing marketing flier. In this scenario, the printed material could have a built-in tag that would direct a consumer's NFC-enabled mobile device to additional information regarding an item being advertised on the page.

The technology could also be used at stores to better control how a consumer accesses additional data about a product prior to making a purchase. "A concern that retailers have is showrooming," Sarkar says, which amounts to patrons using a mobile phone or tablet to compare various online offers for a television or other product that is physically in front of them at a store. An NFC tag could invite a shopper to tap the tag and quickly access information or promotions—such as a "Buy it today, enjoy it tonight" type of offer providing a discount on an item if the purchase is completed right away.

In addition to supplying the customized labels or tags embedded in printed materials, RR Donnelley will provide support in developing the media that consumers would access when reading a tag via an NFC reader. RR Donnelley can also help its clients develop analytics pertaining to tag use, as well as how well the solution may be boosting a product's awareness or sales levels, based on how often and extensively it is used by consumers.

In an example of an NFC use case, Sarkar explains, a kayak retailer could embed an NFC inlay in a display, against which a user could then tap his or her phone. The read event would direct that phone to a server that would ask the customer a series of questions about how and where he or she would like to use the boat. A video response based on those choices could then direct the shopper to the best kayak model for that person's interests.

"We can provide that extended experience by collaborating with our customer to determine the right questions to ask the shopper," Sarkar says, as well as help create the video and ensure that response-tracking can lead to further communications. "For instance, if the shopper completes the purchase, what else might they buy... that day, a month from now or as the seasons change."

RR Donnelley intends to continue marketing its existing RFID labels, which include passive HF and UHF inlays and labels sized to accommodate a variety of inlay sizes. The company also offers an RFID label designed to be mounted directly on metal, thanks to a built-in foam standoff laminated on one side, in order to separate the tag from the metal surface.

At LIVE!, in Booth 434, RR Donnelley intends to showcase its new printed electronics products, Sarkar says, along with system integration and software services. This will include the company's NFC solutions, such as digital content creation and hosting, response measurement and data analytics, as well as RFID labels and packaging services.

Sarkar declines to provide details regarding the technology used to print the tag antenna, indicating that the process is proprietary.