Nov 22, 2002Nov. 22, 2002 - Last week, representatives of 83 companies gathered in a small, but well-appointed hotel a short walk from the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass. In a brightly lit, wood-trimmed conference room on the third-floor, 200 people watched live demonstrations that showed off the capabilities of the technology emerging from the Auto-ID Center.
Representatives from Alien Technology, a Morgan Hill, Calif., startup, set up a reader at the front of the room and took one of their tags carrying an electronic product code (EPC) down the aisle with a tape measure. Alien has produced the first UHF tag based on the Auto-ID Center's specification and has been telling customers conservatively that it has a read range of three meters, or 10 feet. The tag was read from more than 13 meters, or about 45 feet.
"We presented the demonstration with the caveat that it was set up to show maximum free-air range," says Alien's Tom Pounds. "We then put the tag on a product and showed what happens."
The tag was put on a packaging case used for six two-liter soft drink bottles. When the case was empty, the tag could be read from three or four meters. When the bottles filled with liquid were placed in the case, the read range fell to a meter. Alien representatives then showed how using a different style of antenna could boost the read range back to three or four meters.
The team then set up a warehouse dock door demonstration. A pallet stacked with 60 cases of Gillette razor blades was rolled in. One Alien tag had been placed on each Gillette case. All of the tags were facing inward, so they would have to be read through the metal razors. A six- by 10-inch antenna was placed on each side of the pallet.
It is more difficult to read dozens of tags on stationary objects because of null spots – essentially blind spots -- in the UHF field. But the pallet was left stationary. The Alien reader scanned the tags more than 150 times and picked up all 60 tags every time.
ThingMagic, a Cambridge-based startup, and Markem, a Keene, New Hampshire, industrial printing company have teamed up to produce readers based on ThingMagic's design. They set up a fixed reader in the same portal configuration.
"We got 60 out of 60 most of the time during practice runs," says Bernd Schoner, a managing partner at ThingMagic. "During the demo, we got 59 out of 60 on the first pass, and then on the second pass we got all of them."
ThingMagic has completed a manufacturing design for its reader and delivered 100 of them to the Auto-ID Center for the final phase of the field test, which begins in January. The company will be looking for other manufacturing partners that can deliver fixed readers in large numbers, but Schoner says ThingMagic can begin taking orders immediately.
Alien and Flint Ink, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, maker of inks and coatings, also demonstrated tags with printed antennas. The antennas were printed with conductive ink using lithography. Then, a small strap is attached to the antenna. The strap contains a tiny Alien chip, called a NanoBlock, with connectors that enable the chip to couple with the antenna.
The tags with the printed antennas were consistently read from three to four meters (10 to 13 feet). "We achieve very competitive read ranges, especially since the Auto-ID Center's specification calls for a range of one meter," says Dan Lawrence, Flint Ink's manager of print as manufacture.
AWID, a Monsey, N.Y., company that makes handheld readers, recently joined the Auto-ID Center. President and CEO Donny Lee didn't demonstrate the company's handheld reader to the larger group because his engineers are still fine-tuning it to improve the read range. But Lee demonstrated the reader for executives from Gillette, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola.
"There's a genuine need for a handheld that can read the electronic product code," says Lee. "We're the first company to produce one."
The demonstrations were all done under controlled conditions. In a warehouse or store with metal shelving and interference from other RF devices, performance may not be as good. But it's clear that the Auto-ID Center has passed made a great deal of progress. The news reported exclusively last week by RFID Journal that Gillette plans to place a major order for Alien's tags (see Gillette to Purchase 500 Million EPC Tags) shows the technology is ready to be commercialized.