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Nov 23, 2015

Why RFID TIPP Grading is Great News for the Retailers Worldwide

What does EU tax harmonization, the war in Ukraine, and TIPP adoption have in common? All three appear to be stagnant battlefronts with plenty of hard work done behind the scenes but minor visible progress to outsiders. Is there something wrong with the world order, how to move forward? Relax, take a sip of Dr. Pepper and read on to see why and how TIPP will prevail.

What Do TIPP, Tire Sidewall Codes, and Automotive Oil Grades Have in Common?

TIPP is an acronym for Tagged Item Performance Protocol. The TIPP methodology was initially created in the USA to simplify and standardize the communication and accountability around RFID tagging. RFID tagging of retail items dramatically improves inventory accuracy. Without RFID, it is impossible to sustain accurate inventory, especially on the shop floor level, and without accurate inventory a retailer cannot effectively execute their omnichannel sales strategies.

With this said, TIPP is a significant leap forward for any RFID adopting industry that looks to cut tagging costs, simplify communications, and clarify accountability. This approach would equally well serve the RFID adopters in the healthcare, automotive, and aerospace industries. It comes gift-wrapped by the GS1 US, too!

Little something for our friends!

The TIPP approach bears an analogy to car tire codes. The standardized information on the tire sidewalls describes the fundamental characteristics of the tire and is mandated by US Federal Law and EU Directives. Adapting to this system, the car manufacturer carefully masters the product (car) design, sets the tire requirements with a few alternative sizes that the car owners then follow. Periodically there is the unbiased 3rd party to check that a particular car has tires that meet the specs, are not damaged nor too worn out. In all these technical affairs, the tire manufacturer’s responsibility is to come up with the numbers and put them on the product. The tire brand is devoted to the sales and marketing side of things.

Tire sidewall markings include plenty of information for the consumer. “Tire code – en” by F l a n k e r – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons.

I will take a second example also from the automotive industry: SAE oil grades. Most car makers don’t endorse Total, Shell, nor Valvoline above others, but simply specify multigrade SAE 5W-30 in the owner’s manual, perhaps with little twists as BMW-LL-04. These grades have temperature-viscosity built-in, which makes a real difference up here in the North Pole. This valuable classification work was done by the Society of Automotive Engineers – SAE, which also has set standards on the quality side. SAE oil grades lay the grounds for easy purchasing, healthy competition, and results in fewer engine problems for us all. In this setup, the oil brands play an important role that is simply fenced off from the underlying oil grading system.

These two examples illustrate how grading systems have made two major industries more transparent, efficient, and streamlined. Sure it took years to develop and enforce these common practices, but the outcome benefits everyone.

Maintaining Approved Inlay Lists Becomes Too Complicated as RFID Tagging Expands to New Product Categories

Before the TIPP was established, the early adopters of RFID came up with their ways of getting tagging done in a controlled manner. Often this meant countless hours of the trial-and-error type of testing, and the outcome in many cases was lists of approved inlays that are suited for a particular product category. Suppliers were then instructed to use inlays from those lists, and just for a while, the process seemed to be alright.

Gradually the pain started to manifest itself. Because an inlay product is in constant evolution, maintaining of inlay lists often turned out to be quite a burden. To make the situation even more uncomfortable, the amount of testing is dramatically increasing as RFID tagging expands to new product categories. Even suppliers were unhappy due to extra effort and expense because conflicting lists from different retailers lead to exception tagging.

Adopting TIPP Is Evident, But There Are a Few Speedbumps Left on The Road

GS1 US did a fantastic job in pulling retailers, suppliers, and RFID industry experts together, and as an outcome, the TIPP grading system with eight initial performance grades was introduced in January 2015. The test methodology was documented on the protocol, physical and practical levels. A logical and well-documented alternative to the approved inlay list processes had been introduced.

The TIPP Guideline also includes grades for stacked retail items.

So why is it that the US retail’s giants did not instantly adopt TIPP? I would list four factors:

  1. The TIPP grades are not intuitive – which one to pick, and what to do if none of the eight alternative grades meet the read scenario requirements;
  2. How to verify for the TIPP grades – RFID technology vendors have not yet introduced routine validation methods for TIPP graded retail items;
  3. Many retailers are managing global supply chains, and they would rather adopt a global standard around RFID tagging;
  4. From the perspective of a multi-billion dollar retail company, slowness is an integral part of “instant”.

All these issues can and will be resolved; it just takes time. The road ahead is, therefore, paved with education, training, convincing, waiting, and politics. This rough terrain is nothing new since most RFID vendors are ideally used to it already for a decade.

Even slow progress is progress. Image courtesy of Hold the Mustard Postcards ©1980.

The Industry Is Multitasking And Making Further Progress

The vital steps that technology vendors and GS1 should take include making the TIPP grades more understandable, adding new grades in the portfolio, and introducing validation methods. All these issues are being addressed as we speak. In fact, for validation, there are already the first out-of-the-box solutions available, as you can see from the videos below.

On top of this great news, the GS1 Global Office is making a strong effort to develop a TIPP global standard. Retailers in the US, Europe, and Asia should all contribute and support GS1 in getting the global standard out promptly.

All this takes time. Many stakeholders are working on it, and it’s going to turn out great. Please contact me (juho.partanen@voyantic.com) for further insight!

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Nov 06, 2015

The Pioneers of UHF RFID: The Aerospace Industry

中文版 Chinese version

Retail RFID seems to get the most limelight in the RFID industry at the moment. And that is not surprising because of its huge tag volumes and growth rates. But many other sectors are benefiting from RFID use as well. One of my personal favorites is the aerospace industry.

The aerospace industry has been one of the pioneers in UHF RFID use

The most visible aerospace company in the RFID space has been Airbus. Their announcement, at the beginning of this year, to ask their supply base to tag all traceable items with passive RFID shows that they are serious. But also Boeing and Embraer come across regularly in RFID related news. To serve this industry, an ecosystem of RFID technology providers has emerged. Companies such as Fujitsu, Maintag, Tego, OAT Systems, and Brady, to name a few, have a special focus in aerospace RFID. Besides, the ecosystem has generated business opportunities for the supporting industry, see, for example, the Stanley Black & Decker success story.

What is Required from RFID in Aerospace?

So why are some RFID companies specializing in the aerospace industry? Can’t we just buy a roll of RFID labels and start tagging airplane parts? Well, it is not quite as simple as that. Several aspects set aerospace RFID, apart from many other application areas:

  1. Large memory required: The aerospace industry requires that a lot of information (birth records, maintenance records, etc.) is stored directly into the tag. They don’t want to rely on a connection to an external database which is usually used in retail RFID.
  2. Valuable items: The tagged items are of high value and are often used for ten years and more. As a result, tag durability is more important a driver than tag cost.
  3. Harsh conditions: Tags in and out of an airplane need to endure vibration, significant variations in temperature, humidity, and pressure, and many other conditions unfamiliar to retail applications.
  4. Global functionality: As airplanes frequently cross country borders and oceans, the RFID tags need to be readable around the world. As a result, the tags must be designed to be wideband.
  5. Less sensitive tag ICs: Due to their larger memory content and possible special functionalities, the tag ICs used in aerospace typically need more power. As a result, many applications are limited to read ranges of 15 cm to 3 meters.

A Need for Standards

The aerospace industry realized that they need standardization for flyable tags as early as 2006. That is when a group of experts in the field decided to develop a standard under SAE International. SAE AS5678, “Passive RFID Tags Intended for Aircraft Use” was born. The standard includes a broad set of different environmental tests to make sure that a tag would endure the harsh conditions of a flying airplane. Sun APT Test Center was the first lab to start certifying tags according to the standard.

In addition to environmental testing, the standard also describes RF performance tests for the tags. The standard described a very professional and well repeatable measurement methodology. But even more interestingly, the standard divided tag performance into performance grades, somewhat similar to what the GS1 TIPP standard would do for the retail industry in 2015.

AS5678 was truly ahead of its time.

As a result, an airplane manufacturer could simply require a grade B tag to be used by its suppliers without having to specify the tag model or detailed performance parameters.

AS5678 performance tests are typically performed in a small anechoic chamber

Now, in 2015, SAE is revising the AS5678 standard to reflect the new information gained during the years. I have been a member of the team, revising the standard as well. The changes, however, are not very large, which well reflects the quality of the first standard version.

Specific RFID Testing Needs of the Aerospace Industry

The special requirements of the aerospace industry for RFID lead to some specific testing needs:

  1. Measuring tag performance: Because of the large memory contents, wide bandwidth, and rugged design, aerospace tags may have limited read ranges. The AS5678 test methodology can be used to determine the acquired read range and the matching performance grade.
  2. Verifying tag bandwidth: Since a wide bandwidth is required, the performance of the tag needs to be tested typically throughout the 860-960 MHz frequency range.
  3. Environmental tests: AS55678 describes a large set of environmental conditions that the tag needs to endure. The performance of the tag should not degrade during the tests.
  4. Memory testing: The memory of an aerospace tag is organized differently compared to a typical label. As a result, there is a need to have good visibility to the tag memory contents.

My company Voyantic has delivered test and measurement systems for both end-users and technology providers in the aerospace RFID industry. The systems promote design and manufacturing excellence, as well as fluent technical dialogue between pioneering companies within the industry.

If you are interested to learn more, please download our application note below or contact us, and let’s talk more!

Learn How to Test UHF RFID Tags in the Aerospace Industry

Download The Essential Guide for UHF Tag Testing in Aerospace