Zebra Licenses ThingMagic Reader

By Jonathan Collins

Slated for release this year, Zebra Technologies' new line of RFID printers-encoders will feature ThingMagic's latest embedded RFID reader, the Mercury4e.


In a deal that brings together an established bar code label printer specialist with an emerging RFID technology developer, Zebra Technologies and RFID reader designer ThingMagic are partnering to deliver a range of Zebra RFID label printers using ThingMagic’s latest embedded reader.

Zebra’s Cornick

Zebra is the first company to license ThingMagic’s latest embedded reader, the Mercury4e (see New Embeddable RFID Readers), which ThingMagic announced in September this year. As part of that agreement, Zebra will brand its planned new line of RFID printers-encoders with ThingMagic’s name. The first products to come from the partnership are set for release by the end of this year.

Zebra currently sells a range of printer-encoders using readers from Symbol Technologies (which acquired RFID equipment maker Matrics earlier this year), Alien Technology and AWID. Although Zebra says that it will continue to support, upgrade and sell products with readers from its existing suppliers, it expects more and more of its printer-encoders will use the ThingMagic Mercury4e.

The reason for that switch comes from the potential for the Mercury4e software-defined radio technology to support a range of tags. At present, Zebra sells products with different readers to support specific customer RFID implementations; customers using EPC Class 1 tags, for example, need a printer with an Alien reader.

The embedded Mercury4e reader supports all tags based on EPC Class 1 and 0 protocols, as well as Symbols’ EPC Class 0+, ISO 18000-6B and Philips’ UCODE 1.19. The reader’s software architecture also allows remote software upgrades for new protocols, including the forthcoming EPC Generation 2.

While more traditional readers can be upgraded to support the upcoming Gen 2 standard by upgrading the software operating in the printer-encoder flash memory, that technique has limited potential to support later tag specifications, according to Zebra.

“Anyone who says they know that every protocol developed can be flash upgraded is probably taking a risk. In all likelihood software-defined radio readers are the only way to accommodate future protocols,” says Robert Cornick, vice president and general manager of RFID for Zebra Technologies.

Zebra plans to use ThingMagic’s reader in its 915 MHz printer-encoders, which will be sold in the U.S., but will turn to other reader designs and manufacturers for European market, where UHF tags operate at 868 MHz, and the Japanese market, where UHF tags operate at 960 MHz. “We’d like to use ThingMagic in as many places as we can, but today we can’t do that in Asia,” says Cornick.

Zebra says that prices for the new ThingMagic powered printer-encoders will be no more than its existing products.

Both Zebra and ThingMagic believe that as companies move from RFID pilots to RFID implementations, the need for multiprotocol support from their equipment becomes increasingly important.

“Most RFID is at the pilot stage now, and in a pilot, support for only one kind of RFID tag is fine,” says Kevin Aston, ThingMagic’s vice president in charge of marketing and business development. “But as companies move into the implementation stage, they will want to know that the equipment they invest in at the end of 2004 and in 2005 will still be working in 2008 and 2009 and be able to read any tag.”

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