The IDTechEx Knowledgebase of over 3,500 RFID projects in 109 countries illustrates how this market of over $5 billion is rapidly diversifying. For example, ruggedised RFID tags have long been sold in volume for opening your car door at a distance and for industrial laundry. However, in the last six months, most of the sellers of disposable UHF labels used in the retail supply chain and on air baggage report a rapid increase in requests for ruggedised versions. That usually involves the capability of working on metal in addition to the ability to withstand mechanical, chemical, thermal and electromagnetic abuse. Such tags are therefore often referred to as on-metal tags and most of them rely on thick plastic, with some employing clever electromagnetic materials as well.
Apparel and Ruggedised tags
Compare the use of disposable tags for retail apparel with tags fitted for life in laundry. In both cases it is done simply for stock control. The next phase is to combine the best features of both in order to provide many other paybacks and consumer benefits. Tagging of rented apparel and linen is carried out by over one hundred commercial and dedicated laundries in military establishments, hospitals, casinos and so on. It is well established. Over 150 million items are laundered by industrial laundries across the world and some items, such as uniforms, are replaced and re-tagged within one year. New versions of laundry tags take the form of small buttons and colour matched discs.
Disposable apparel tags
In addition, we now have a clearly demonstrated business case for disposable tags on apparel in the retail supply chain. Over 200 million of these disposable apparel tags are being fitted this year and one hundred times that number is in prospect in ten years time. About 60 retailers and their suppliers are now copying this and wondering why they did not do so earlier, such are the benefits in profit and customer service.
The next stage - washable, woven RFID
Emboldened by the success of Marks and Spencer in the UK and many others, impressive fashion and retail groupings in Germany, Italy and Japan are now trialing the many other potential benefits that can be realised if we move beyond RFID simply for stock control of apparel.
This calls for testing to establish which potential benefits are worthwhile. We must create an affordable tag that is neither the disposable apparel tag of today nor the heavy, ruggedised laundry tag but something combining the benefits of both, typically in a light weight, thin, woven designer label fitted for life. Will it be UHF as with current retail labels or HF as with laundry tags. As required, if RFID enabled Near Field Communication phones are to be used for purchasing? When used in an open system where retailers sell more than just own brand fashion, what standards and numbering system will be used? Unlike today's apparel tagging, there are technical, payback and sometimes privacy issues to be resolved with the next phase but the prizes are great for all in the value chain. It is little wonder that the famous brands from Armani in Italy to the leading Japanese retailers are involved. Some of the options and issues are summarised below.
Great variety of needs for ruggedised RFID
An RFID tag in a designer label must withstand dry cleaning, washing machines and irons. In other applications such as electrodes in refining and being set in concrete, ruggedised RFID tags are variously withstanding hot acid mist, extremely alkaline environments and more. Even UHF tags, traditionally among the most sensitive to metal and water nearby, are being used on metal computer equipment and in wet environments when specially made for the purpose. In future, about one percent of UHF tags will be made in this way and their premium price means that they will represent at least ten percent of the market. Enhanced systems are often needed as well for these challenging applications and sensing may be involved.
Europe's largest conference
At Europe's largest RFID conference, RFID Europe, in Cambridge UK 30th September - 1 October, the most impressive users, developers and suppliers of ruggedised and apparel RFID will present their new advances and view of the future. That includes users of ruggedised and on-metal RFID such the US Navy, IBM, Container Centralen, Laing O'Rourke, Marshall Aerospace, Progressive Gaming, the Royal Alexandra Hospital, St Olav's Hospital, the Academic Medical Centre, the Air Transport Association and Transport for London. Richard Rees, one of the most experienced figures in the area of standards and system integration will give an overview. He is CEO of gold sponsor Scanology in the Netherlands which has an enviable reputation for the highest performing HF RFID systems and more to announce.
Silver sponsors include Impinj of the USA, the leading UHF chipmaker, now leading advances further down the value chain as well, and Omni-ID of the USA and UK, with a remarkable on-metal capability using special physics to give a very thin, small footprint, high performance UHF label. Then there is MBBS of Switzerland, which even puts its specially designed LF tags completely inside metal objects such as surgeon's tools, that are autoclaved and inside construction metalwork. It also has ruggedised HF tag systems. Silver sponsor LEONARD KURZ of Stiftung & Co. KG of Germany has a new HF tag manufacturing advance and Power ID of Israel, Cambridge based Conductive Inkjet Technologies and TRAAK Systems from Scotland are silver sponsors this year. Silver sponsor Sonitor Technologies of the USA & Norway will report its huge success with ruggedised Real Time Locating Systems in hospitals.
Other recent successes
The bronze sponsors such as Ekahau of Finland with ruggedised RTLS in hospitals, mining etc., CAEN RFID of Italy and Bemrose Booth of the UK are also promoting new ruggedised, high performance RFID so there is quite a trend here. For example, this year, CAEN RFID has succeeded in the simultaneous identification and location of metal products handled inside the Acciai Vender warehouse in Italy. It is a commercial and service centre for stainless steel. Another success this year has been using UHF ruggedised tags to track trucks in the Safe and Efficient Cargo project in Italy, sponsored by the Transport Department of Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia (FVG). It traces the goods flows in the main logistic infrastructures and automatically manages the relevant documents, such as docking demands and boarding/landing requests by truck drivers passing through Trieste harbour.
The big picture
IDTechEx and the University of Manchester in the UK will be among those covering apparel RFID, including the global situation of over 60 suppliers and over 60 users and the forecasts. There are talks by the European Commission and the Information Commissioner's office on privacy issues and what to do about them. Indeed, IDTechEx prides itself on giving digested comprehensive analysis rather than commercials at these events. David Lyon analysing real world uses of EPCglobal around the world will be another example of this. There will be an investment summit, optional masterclasses, an exhibition and tours to local companies.
For more attend RFID Europe 2008.