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RFID Tags Printed on Plastic Foil  (Source: Gyou-Jin Cho/Sunchon National University)
Printing process uses carbon nanotubes

RFID tags are in many of the products that we already buy today and the promise of RFID in the future is that we may not even have to stop at the register to checkout at the store. In the future, with prolific RFID tags more powerful than what we have today, all we might need to do is walk out the door with our carts and our total would be computed automatically. Today's RFID technology, however, is prone to hacking, which was demonstrated when researchers were able to clone an RFID passport while driving by it.

Before we can get to the point where store inventories are able to be done in real-time using RFID tags, we need to have cheaper and more efficient methods of producing the tags and the tags need to hold more information and use less power. Researchers at Rice University and Sunchon National University in Korean are working on a joint project using RFID tags that are printed on a roll-to-roll process that uses inks embedded with carbon nanotubes.

The printing process is able to make RFID tags continuously with a cost of pennies each. The technology for the ink was first invented in the Rice lab of James Tour and was at the time used to print thin-film transistors, which are a key part of RFID tags printed on paper or plastic. Gyou-jin Cho from the Sunchon National University in Korea says that professor Tour was the person who recommended using single wall nanotubes in the ink.

Cho said, "Professor Tour first recommended we use single-walled carbon nanotubes for printing thin-film transistors." Tour says that Rice owns half the patent that is pending on the technology and states, "Gyou-jin has carried the brunt of this, and it's his sole project. We are advisers and we still send him the raw materials." Tour's lab is where the carbon nanotubes needed for the ink are produced.

Most RFID tags that are in use today are made from silicon-based materials. Paper or plastic tags that can be printed would dramatically reduce the cost of making RFID tags. Printed tags could also replace the bar codes that are printed on all packages now.

The process developed by the researcher is able to print one-bit RFID tags complete with an antenna, electrodes, and dielectric layers on a roll of plastic foil. The process still needs to be refined and improved before it is practical. Cho is working on 16-bit tags that could hold enough data to be useful in real world applications and still be printable on paper.

The printed RFID tags are passive and need no power source, which is what makes them so cheap to produce. The tags only give off the data on them when hit with radio waves at the correct frequency. The RFID tags also have to be reduced to about a third of their current size to be printable on packages.

The team is also working on increasing the range that the tags can be read from. Currently the printed tags can only be read from a very close distance to the transmitter. To be useful in inventorying an entire store or warehouse the tags need a range of about 300 meters. 

"Right now, the emitter has to be pretty close to the tags, but it's getting farther all the time," said Tour. "The practical distance to have it ring up all the items in your shopping cart is a meter. But the ultimate would be to signal and get immediate response back from every item in your store – what's on the shelves, their dates, everything. At 300 meters, you're set – you have real-time information on every item in a warehouse. If something falls behind a shelf, you know about it. If a product is about to expire, you know to move it to the front – or to the bargain bin."

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RE: RFID vs Barcodes
By qdemn7 on 3/19/2010 2:50:59 PM , Rating: 0
Not for complete retail inventory management, but for point of sale, it would great.

But, where this would be best would be in a distribution center. This would be a much better system than pick to light or voice picking. You could track every box as it's picked, packed and travels through the conveyor system and right into it's particular truck. Once the boxes get to the store they could be scanned quickly, and any in transit shortages found and claims submitted. If the carrier is the source of theft, THAT could be identified. And no more store personnel claiming they got shorted, when in reality they're stealing.

RE: RFID vs Barcodes
By OUits on 3/19/2010 2:55:51 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah I think a tag/pallet could work for some retailers.

Point of sale is much trickier.

RE: RFID vs Barcodes
By ChuckDriver on 3/20/2010 12:07:19 AM , Rating: 2
Point of sale is much trickier.

I agree and believe that is the barcode's strength. Why tag each unit of a product with RFID, no matter how inexpensive, when the barcode can be printed the package along with the rest of the information that has to be there anyway. I could foresee a system that just uses optical recognition of the product catching on before RFID at the PoS. The advantage of that would be you could recognize produce that can't be tagged or barcoded. Even with all the advances in technology, produce still has to be keyed in on the cash register.

RE: RFID vs Barcodes
By ImSpartacus on 3/20/2010 9:57:41 AM , Rating: 3
RFID is still pretty expensive.

And the DCs that I've seen all already know how much of each product is in each truck. RFID doesn't improve anything in that respect.

And people are always forgetting that for RFID to be truly effective, everybody in the chain needs to be trained to use it. At my DC, we've been using RFID for a while, but our production facility still has trouble with it. That creates headaches.

It all costs money.

RE: RFID vs Barcodes
By ElderTech on 3/20/2010 10:54:28 AM , Rating: 3
The whole concept of store wide RFID accessability at "300 meters" can create all kinds of problems with security/hacking. A competitor could simply download a store's inventory to compare product sales on a daily basis from outside the store, creating a huge marketing advantage. This would require an RF barrier around the entire store, but even this wouldn't curtail the process from within the store.

For this whole concept to be successful, there needs to be an encryption process inherent in the RFID data, which would make not only the tag, but the whole system, much more complex and expensive, at least initially. And that creates a problem for wide spread use of the RFID tags, if they are proprietary in nature. A manufacturer couldn't create the end use tag at the initial production process, unless the tag could be modified with additional information during the distribution phase, which would allow for the inclusion of the proprietary encryption.

As both a retailer and a wholesale distributor, while the general concept of RFID is interesting, I find it fraught with problems, including the ones mentioned above. Currently, the ubiquitous barcode is likely to survive for some time until these and other concerns for RFID are answered. Ultimately, a hybrid/combination of RF and optical communication system may be the answer.

RE: RFID vs Barcodes
By drycrust3 on 3/20/2010 11:46:23 AM , Rating: 2
I agree with you that this would be ideal for a distribution centre, but I think it would need to be more than 16 bits because the probability of two items arrive having the same number will become significant.

Also, there needs to be a means to ensure that a large number of "RFID" messages don't arrive at the receiver at the same time, thus corrupting the data.

RE: RFID vs Barcodes
By Samus on 3/21/2010 6:53:28 PM , Rating: 3
Regarding security, RFID is far more secure from an amateur level of 'hijacking' a bar code.

Having worked in retail back in college, I couldn't tell you how much money the store lost from products processed at checkout having a hijacked (aka a replacement label over the original) because it is extremely easy to do and the practice of seeing legitimate bar code replacements is pretty common when clearance items, manufacture mislabels and products lacking a bar code (brown/white box computer equipment) often have a store-placed label.

Anybody can scope out a product they want, find a comparably described item that is cheaper, remember the bar code, and come back later with one they printed and jack the item cheap. RFID's would make this process a lot more complicated as you'd have to reprogram the RFID.

White more stealth than physically changing a bar code (we caught people on camera sometimes) it requires something beyond amateur status. 80% of retail theft is among amateur petty theft.

"If you look at the last five years, if you look at what major innovations have occurred in computing technology, every single one of them came from AMD. Not a single innovation came from Intel." -- AMD CEO Hector Ruiz in 2007

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