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July 26 2006 01:26 PM

In the last 18 months, there�s been lots of talk about breakthroughs in RFID technology such as thin, consumable �smart labels,� and their potential impact on parcel and distribution markets. While smart labels hold great promise, RFID solutions based on traditional, low-frequency technology continue to prove themselves to be the workhorses of the industry in thousands of tracking applications worldwide.
In fact, you could almost say that RFID is approaching maturity in some industries.
Low-frequency (LF), battery-free transponders have been embedded in pallets, totes, containers and on carts and vehicles for up to 10 years to create hands-off automation of material handling and inventory management. These transponders, or tags, reliably travel around and around their cycles, day after day, without any need to be replaced. Hidden from sight, without need of contact, they perform millions of transactions quietly and invisibly, which is probably why they don�t get much publicity.
For instance, the German pharmaceutical wholesaler Sanacorp, with 15 regional distribution centers, began identifying transport containers in its warehouses more than five years ago. The company stocks 80,000 products at each center from which it must rapidly (in less than one hour) pick individual orders for specific drugstores. With a unique identifier tag embedded in each plastic tote, it automatically sends the bin along a conveyor belt to the specific locations in the warehouse to collect the ordered products. At any one time, there may be 6,000 totes traveling through the system. A central database coordinates the entire process. Sanacorp has virtually eliminated errors in its deliveries and the bottom line is an increased market share.
Probably the application that consumes the largest volume of these RFID tags is in the realm of automotive security. Most new cars have a transponder in the ignition key to create a system that prevents theft more securely than ever before. This is a consumer application, yet the typical driver probably does not know that he is depending upon RFID to protect him.
Despite apparent differences among industries, many installed applications have strong similarities to each other. For example, the U.S. Postal Service uses tags to identify and track rolling carts much like Sanacorp uses them for totes on conveyors.
With hundreds of millions of LF tags in use worldwide, there is a broad range of suppliers and systems integrators who have traveled far down the integration learning curve to be able to design applications quickly and with little risk.
The growth in production has also resulted in higher functionality at a lower cost for traditional RFID systems as manufacturers move down the well-known electronics learning curve. Today, you can purchase a low-frequency, battery-free tag for as little as $1.50, which was originally introduced at around $8.00.
Like most technologies, RFID is rapidly evolving, yet new approaches won�t necessarily replace current ones. RFID hasn�t replaced barcodes and most experts don�t expect that it will. These new approaches add other dimensions to an expanding list of technology solutions.
Smart labels will open up a host of new applications, especially in parcel shipping, but current RFID technologies are time and field tested and will continue to carry a major load now and in the future.
Susy d�Hont works for Texas Instruments in Dallas where she holds the position of worldwide market communications manager for TIRIS, the RFID Division. As one of the founding members of TIRIS in 1990, Susy has been an active spokesperson for RFID since the beginning; publishing articles and presenting at automatic ID and logistics conferences in the US and Europe. Contact her at 800-785-7366, e-mail or