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July 26 2006 11:14 AM

The one common thread in the automatic identification and data collection (AIDC) industry these days is standards. Whether it�s wireless LANs (WLANs), radio frequency identification (RFID) or barcode package labeling, new standards are shaking things up...usually for the better. All three of these will have an impact on your operation one way or another over the next few years and, for some of you, it may be even sooner. Here are three things that should be on your radar.
Wireless LANs
What used to be called radio frequency data communications (RFDC) has now grown up and acquired a new name: wireless local area networks (WLANs). Whereas RFDC was pretty much limited in use to mobile terminals on lift trucks or wireless terminals that lived in the warehouse or on a shipping dock to provide communications where hard-wiring wasn�t possible, WLANs are now being viewed as a viable alternative as a corporate communications backbone. Three inter-related factors are making this possible: speed, standards and savings.
Speed: Without high throughput rates, any thought of replacing a hard-wired Ethernet network with a wireless one is moot. The two Mbit throughput of last year�s systems simply couldn�t handle the traffic of a corporate backbone. The two Mbit speed was a great leap forward for RFDC and opened up a number of applications such as wireless POS and mobile transaction processing. But no one seriously considered it as an alternative to a 10 Mbit Ethernet backbone except in limited applications where requirements were relatively light.
In the fall of 1999, however, an 11 Mbit protocol for direct sequence spread spectrum was approved that has changed the whole IT/IS infrastructure landscape. According to Dick Sorensen, manager of Backbone and Connectivity Products for LXE, the Norcross, Georgia manufacturer of portable and mobile data collection terminals, the 11 Mbit protocol can provide an achieved throughput of about four Mbits (accounting for system overhead requirements), which is comparable to what a hard-wired network provides.
According to Sorenson, �Wireless applications aren�t vertical anymore. We�re seeing requirements for network capability, not just data collection terminals or warehouse. Wireless is moving into shop floor maintenance, supervisory QC/QA, voice, Internet and office spaces.� The first of these 11 Mbit systems (such as one offered by Lucent Technologies) are already on the market and more will follow soon.
Standards: Until recently, RFDC systems operated on proprietary protocols and frequencies. When the IEEE 802.11 standard for spread spectrum radios operating at 2.54 GHz was published in 1998, it outlined standard protocols to allow the radios from all complying manufacturers to communicate with each other (or �interoperate�). Interoperability offers two advantages to the user. First, it allows multi-sourcing. Users can now purchase the best radio available and mix in other makes of radios as systems expand or other vendors offer better prices or performance. Second, it forces vendors to begin competing on price and performance, something they could avoid in the proprietary world.
Interoperability came slowly at first, with some supposedly 802.11-compliant radios barely able to recognize the presence of another supposedly compliant radio. That�s changed. Sorenson, whose company OEMs radios from both Lucent and Proxim, says it has successfully used Lucent client radios on an Aeronet backbone. He admits, however, that there had to be some �tweaks� to the system. The Wireless Electronic Communications Association (WECA) is working on developing out-of-box interoperability � but isn�t there yet. Vendors are still jockeying for position and many offer proprietary extensions to the standard. Sorenson cautions buyers to be wary of turning on �extensions� if they want true interoperability between vendors� radios.
It should be noted that there are two types of spread spectrum recognized by the standard: direct sequence (DS) and frequency hopping (FH). Interoperability is not possible between DS and FH systems, only within each type.
In the past, there has been a controversy over �roaming� interop-erability � that is, how one access point transfers communications with a client radio to another access point as the client moves around a facility. Access points are the fixed location nodes on the backbone that communicate not only with the client radios but also with each other and the host computer. Sorenson says that some systems are interoperable in roaming mode but admits that different vendors handle this differently. He cautions users to check with their integrators if this is an issue. Sorenson recommends using a single vendor for the entire backbone to ensure smooth communications between access points.
With the approval of IEEE 802.11B, the 11 Mbit protocols for direct sequence spread spectrum were adopted, creating thoughts of running client/server, graphics, Web-based and other communications-intensive applications over wireless networks.
Are users aware of the standards? According to Sorenson, he�s walked into many client meetings where the first point of discussion is compliance with 802.11. If the offered products aren�t 802.11-compliant, the discussion is over.
Savings: Again, according to Sorenson, �The economies for wireless are fairly competitive compared to Ethernet drop in a campus environment.� He explains that while a wireless backbone may cost more initially, time and labor costs to reconfigure a hard-wired network when facilities or offices are rearranged add up quickly. Wireless LANs virtually eliminate these costs.
It is true that more access points are required for 802.11-compliant systems than for older, proprietary ones (such as 900 MHz systems). However, for many users, the not being locked into a single vendor is more than worth the additional cost. Other cost savings come into play with the ability to instantly add new nodes. With more and more employees carrying notebook computers, a wireless modem can connect them to the network the moment they enter a building, saving time and making ad hoc networking feasible.
Radio Frequency ID
Radio frequency identification (RFID) is another area where a number of standards are being developed. You�ve probably already heard about �smart labels� (operating at either 13.56 MHz or 2.45 GHz) but many believe these labels are, at the moment, more a solution in search of a problem. Until the business case is convincingly proven, smart labels won�t be a significant issue because of their additional costs and shorter reading ranges versus barcode shipping labels. There are others, however, who feel that �smart labels� will be significant sooner rather than later.
Whichever the case may be, the real news is the so-called G-tag, designed for returnable containers and pallets. With a requirement for a range of two to five meters (versus the approximately 18 inches available with smart labels), it promises to be a lot more useful in a lot more applications. And, the idea is to make it globally acceptable. Currently, long-range tags operating in a single frequency range are not acceptable under North American, European and Japanese regulations. The only �international� tag is a dual-frequency tag for intermodal containers that costs over $100. The so-called G-tag would be much cheaper to spur widespread implementation. In concept, it�s a laudable effort. In reality, it may be almost entirely useless. And the problem isn�t one of technology, it�s politics � global politics.
On March 17, 2000, the Uniform Code Council (UCC) and EAN International announced their support for a recommendation from a European organization (ESI III) for the allocation of 862 to 870 MHz of the UHF spectrum for such tags. This is highly significant because it was the UCC and later EAN that spearheaded the use of barcodes on such a wide range of products. UCC/EAN anticipate having a standard in place within 18 months.
On paper, this sounds like a major step forward. Because RFID system performance is dependent in great part on the frequencies used, UHF is more preferable for longer ranges than 2.45 GHz or higher that are more akin to microwave transmissions (and, hence, have to be limited in power). UHF also exhibits good penetration and �around-the-corner reading� capabilities to allow reading of embedded or concealed tags.
The problem, however, is that this frequency band is not universally available even in Europe. In the US, the upper part of this band is used for fire and police emergency radios while the lower part is used by some mobile LANs. Thus, the proposed standard could not possibly be implemented in the US.
And, as is often the case with standards bodies, more than one organization is working on the same problem at the same time. The American National Standards Institute�s (ANSI) MH10 subcommittee 8 (MH10.8) is working on a similar standard. Initial recommendations are for 902 to 928 MHz, although this may be narrowed to 915 to 928 MHz since the British use 902 to 928 for cellular. The 915 to 928 band isn�t entirely free in the US but the group doesn�t see a significant problem with other band uses.
According to Craig Harmon of QED Systems, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa consultant who is active in many national and international standards groups (including both ANSI MH10.8 and UCC), what�s needed is a much broader standard, say between 862 to 928 MHz, for international use. Since it�s possible to get more than a five meter range with UHF tags and because much of the communication is based on the frequency of the interrogating reader, even if there�s a 20% diminution in signal strength for non-optimally matched frequencies, systems could still meet operational requirements. According to Harmon, if each country could then allocate 10 MHz of continuous bandwidth for UHF tags within this range, an internationally useful standard could be established.
About that �almost entirely useless� statement I made earlier, the �almost� is there for a reason. Whether the G-tag initiative will help or hurt the development of a usable standard, Harmon replies, �What it does is sensitize the market to the need for a UHF frequency allocation whether it�s successful or not.� He believes that even if different standards are initially adopted in Europe and the US, we will see the development of products that could be used in both regions and that, eventually, the marketplace will make the decision rather than the standards-setters. RFID vendors facing conflicting standards will likely strive to find ways to make a single tag that will work across the full range of frequencies. Whether the current standards initiatives ever bear fruit, RFID for pallets and returnable containers is on the near horizon.
Product Packaging Barcodes
The International Organization for Standards� (ISO) TC122 Working Group 7 has approved a new work item to address barcode labeling of product packaging � not to be confused with product or shipping label standards. According to one source, development of this standard is not a �can of worms� as has been suggested by some � it�s a �bucket of worms.�
Part of the problem lies in defining �packaging.� For example, is a can of beans a product or the package? Is the corrugated box a storm door that comes in �packaging� or do we treat the combination as a product? Those are the kinds of issues that attract the most attention but there are deeper issues.
Although there are already many standards for labeling product packaging, most are industry-specific. But even then, they�re not universally popular. Most of the automotive industry, for example, handles marking of product packaging and products in the same way. Others in the industry view them as requiring different approaches. And then there�s the problem of EAN not wanting to adopt a 14-digit standard for product identification. The irony is that EAN for years ridiculed the UCC for not promoting the use of a 13-digit database that would allow EAN symbols to be acceptable in the US. Now that US companies� databases have been expanded to 14 digits, Europeans are digging in their heels.
Sound like fun? It is. Nonetheless, look for a draft standard to be approved within 18 months! Why? Because this standard will merely expand on the status quo and formalize the different approaches rather than try for something revolutionary.
The International Electrotechnical Commission�s (IEC) Technical Committee 91 has already developed a product packaging standard that will serve as the basis for the ISO standard. The major work that remains is for UCC/EAN standards to be wrapped into the IEC standard.
Although many would like to finally �kill off� Interleaved 2-of-5 (which has known weaknesses), it�s possible it will have to remain because it�s the only compact, two-width (i.e., wide and narrow only), all-numeric symbology in widespread use. And if direct marking is an issue, two-width symbologies are preferred.
One More Item
There�s one other topic you might want to put in your radar screen if you�re planning on buying handheld barcode scanners in the near future: imagers. With the introduction last year of low-cost, high-resolution CMOS imagers, the cost of this technology has dropped dramatically. CMOS works like the CCD cameras you have in your video camera, but because it�s based on metal oxide rather than glass, it�s much more durable and less expensive. Until last year, however, CMOS technology didn�t offer enough resolution to read barcodes.
The U.S. Postal Service scanners performing signature capture for delivery confirmation are using CMOS imagers, but because CMOS resolution wasn�t adequate at the time the equipment was designed and the contract signed, the USPS scanners use a laser to read the barcodes. Today, it�s a different story.
Imagers can not only read barcodes, but they can do it omni-directionally. They can perform optical character recognition (OCR) and take photos � either of a signature, the recipient, freight damage or whatever you need. The limitation on imagers is that they don�t have the range of laser scanners and still cost a bit more. Special software is also required if you�re going to take advantage of all the capabilities. That is, the computer or handheld terminal needs to be able to switch between interpreting the data stream as either a barcode, OCR or an image. And CMOS imagers don�t have the resolution of high-density laser scanners or megapixel CCD imagers.  Still, whether or not you need all the capabilities offered by imagers, the growing availability of CMOS imagers is good news for you because they�ve helped force down the price of general purpose laser scanners.
The old adage �forewarned is forearmed� is certainly true in the AIDC world. Knowing what�s just over the horizon will help you make more intelligent choices today and prepare you to take advantage of opportunities as they emerge tomorrow.
Bert Moore is editor of Parcel Shipping & Distribution magazine and is the director of IDAT Consulting & Education, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based firm for AIDC solutions. Bert can be reached at 412-344-9020, fax 412-344-9030, or e-mail For more information on AIDC, you can also visit IDAT on the Web at