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May 02, 2019

Using TIPP Tagged Item Performance Protocol Outside Retail

中文版 Chinese version

GS1 RAIN RFID Performance Standard Helps to Scale up RFID Across Industries

RAIN RFID is being adopted increasingly in several industries such as automotive manufacturing, healthcare, and pharma. Because of the growing number of implementations, there is an increasing need for a solution that helps to scale up the implementations.

One of the bottlenecks seems to be specifying RAIN tag performance in a way that enables the use of tags from several manufacturers in a system. Need for performance specification or for a method to classify tags comes up more and more frequently in industry meetings. The good news is that pioneering industries have solved these questions earlier, and there are working solutions ready for adoption.

Why Performance Specification is a Thing?

Most RAIN RFID system deployments cover a single use case, utilizing one type of tags in one way. When users become familiar with the system and learn about the possibilities, the deployment starts expanding:

  • New types of readers are added
  • New types of items are tagged
  • New use cases are added.

End users naturally expect that all the components have solid readability across the entire deployment. At the same time scaling up typically creates a need to use several tagging suppliers. This ultimately creates the need to specify performance instead of purchasing a tag model.

Keyword is “Scalability”

GS1 TIPP is a Ready Solution

GS1 Tagged Item Performance Protocol (TIPP) was originally developed for retail use. The methodology is universal and works perfectly for any RAIN user industry such as pharma, healthcare or automotive. The performance classes aka grades and methodology are already used in several applications beyond retail. Adopting GS1 TIPP is easy when a working tag and tagging method has been found:

  1. The item or group of items can be tested in minutes for finding out which performance classes it fulfills.
  2. The test outcome is the performance specification.
  3. In addition, tagging instructions and quality requirements are created easily.

For example:

Tagging instructions: Item X is tagged by placing the tag on the top part, as shown in the photo above
Performance specification: Tagged item performance should meet TIPP grade S30B
Quality specification: Inlay quality variation should be within +/- 2dB
Encoding specification: The tag should be encoded with 96bit SGTIN code and permalocked.

Scale up by leveraging existing standards

There are several benefits for adopting GS1 TIPP standard:

  • Dozens of tag manufacturers have the TIPP test capability in-house.
    The specifications would be quick to roll out.
  • There are several third-party test centers offering testing-as-a-service in several continents.
    Anyone has access to the testing.
  • The standard already includes several performance grades – with high probability one of these performance classes can be used in any application in any industry.
  • There is a self-improving methodology included. If there are no suitable grades for a new industry or application, a new grade can be added and it is automatically distributed to tag manufacturers globally.

Re-inventing the Wheel Creates New Problems

Developing new, parallel methods brings problems: new investments would be needed, and communicating new requirements with new ways to dozens of tag manufacturers globally is risky and slow. All in all, the adoption would be slow and instead of helping to scale up the industry a new bottleneck may emerge. It took industry experts more than four years to develop the GS1 TIPP into a global standard, which only shows how extremely slow it is to create a new standard.

In my opinion, the best way to scale up is to leverage the existing EPC standards, and GS1 TIPP is one of the standards in the EPC standards family.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about the GS1 TIPP methodology? Contact us – I would be happy to discuss this in more detail!

Mar 14, 2019

Future-proofing RAIN Connectivity

中文版 Chinese version

The RAIN RFID market has been growing nicely throughout the latest years. The latest news is that last year a total of 15.4 billion RAIN ICs were sold – and we are nicely on track for more than 20 billion in 2020. At the same time, the market penetration is still very low. According to IdTechEx, in the most successful market segment, retail, we are at around 10% of the total accessible market, and with other segments, such as Industry 4.0, aviation, and food it is even lower. So, there is plenty of room to grow.

We can already see 100 billion tags a year in the horizon. I don’t know if it will be in 8 or 10 years, but we are getting there. Then maybe another ten more years, and we will be at 1 trillion. However, several things in our thinking will need to change for that to happen.

I can see three obstacles that we need to overcome.

  1. We need to think about what happens when applications overlap. We are already starting to reach the situation where tags from one application are entering the read zones of other applications, and it is causing problems.
  2. We need to prepare for people intentionally messing with the applications. This is something that has not been a big problem for now, but it will increase as RAIN RFID spreads wider.
  3. We need to stop thinking in terms of tags and start thinking about RFID enabled items. There will not always be a separate tag that is attached to a product.

Since the industry has accepted that source tagging is the way to go, there needs to be a way for the party that owns the RAIN system to specify to the party that tags the product, how to tag.

For that I propose the Tagging Specification.

The specification is a common language between the parties, and it could also work as a checklist to make sure that all aspects have been considered. But what should be in a tagging specification? This is my proposal:

Geographic Region

In which geographic regions does the tagged item need to be identifiable? This could be for example ETSI, FCC, or global; and this choice will affect the tuning of the tag. With the upcoming upper ETSI band we have more and more countries working around 915 MHz.

Tag Numbering Scheme

How do we encode the tags? This is one of the areas where we need to look into the future. When there are more and more tags out there, the applications start to overlap.

For example, in a running race we have tags in the bibs of the runners provided by the timing system provider. But we also have tags integrated in some of the garments or accessories of the runners, courtesy of the sports retailer. When the runners pass the RFID readers, there is a limited amount of time to detect each runner – or even get several readings for reliable timing – if there are tags around that don’t belong to that application. Juho’s blog post about tag flooding talks more about this. The radio protocol provides ways to ignore the irrelevant tags, but it takes more time, and it requires that all parties think about the numbering.

Security

One action that is closely related to encoding the tag data, is securing it. At the moment, RAIN RFID is not everywhere, and most RAIN RFID readers are professional equipment. But, we are already close to the time when different electronics enthusiasts get their hands on RAIN reader modules. It may take some more time, but at some point we will have more RAIN readers integrated in mobile phones. And when there is an opportunity, there will be sabotage and people trying to get gains for themselves by affecting the RAIN RFID systems.

Of course, different applications have different security needs. There are still surprisingly many applications out there, where there is zero security – the EPC is encoded and that’s it. Most applications lock the EPC memory and passwords. That may work for a while, but in the long run, you need a way to manage passwords, and Nedap’s Danny Haak’s proposal for managing RAIN passwords could be a solution. Finally, in some application there might be a need for authentication functionalities.

Tagging Method

There is a fundamental shift in the industry, where more and more tags are integrated either into the packaging or into the products themselves, be it a running backpack or a tire. Thus the specification is no longer about the tag itself but about the RAIN-enabled product – or maybe a smart product. So, another line in the tagging specification would be tagging method. Is the tag a sticker applied to the product? Is it a hang tag? Is the tag applied to the package? Or is it integrated somewhere inside the product? Perhaps it is up to the supplier to decide? This all depends on whether there is a use for the tag after the point of sale; for example for product returns, warranty etc.

Tag Size

Tag size is often the first specification that comes up. Usually we want the tag to be as small as possible. But there is a compromise between the bandwidth of the tag which affects the geographic range; its performance – how far it can be read from; and size. You can choose any two, but the third one will be a compromise.

Tagged Item Performance

Radio performance matters as well. But it is not the performance of the tag, it is the performance of the entire RAIN-enabled product. And that’s where inlay lists widely used in retail will be insufficient. Still several retailers maintain lists of inlays that are allowed for products sold in their stores. And Auburn University is certifying tags for different product categories. That is an ok starting point, if you want to do hang tagging. But not everyone does.

Determining radio performance for RAIN-enabled products is somewhat more difficult than for just inlays or tags; and the testing methodology should be thought out for each industry. The TIPP methodology was developed for retail several years ago, and now there is an ISO standard family coming out for RFID in tires. The application determines whether in the typical reading scenario there are multiple tags close to each other and from which directions the products need to be identifiable. The reader type used in the application, on the other hand, may determine the requirements for sensitivity and backscatter strength.

It is extremely important that the tagging specification includes a clear verifiable performance requirement – and that it is vendor agnostic. That is the only way that the industry can improve and innovate.

Example of a tagging specification; what elements a specification should contain.

The tagging specification is my proposal for overcoming the obstacles we are facing – and this is my idea about what should be in the specification. Let us hear what do you think should be there!

Sep 26, 2017

What Do Babies and RFID Have in Common?

Something worried me before my first daughter’s arrival, something I had been already warned: “Babies are born without a handbook”. I am used to working with procedures, methodologies or at least to have some standards to follow; and now I was going to face the most demanding challenge in my life without any kind of guidance.

But, I gradually noticed that it was not going to be that way, and that the parallelism between the technology I have been working with for more than 15 years, RFID ― those intelligent chips enabling the Internet of Things which we can find in more and more stores and warehouses every day ―, was clear from minute zero. Many companies, end users and system integrators think, like I did in early stage, that there are no rules nor guidelines for a project to become successful, but that trial and error is the only way to gain experience to face it with. Is that how I should bring my daughter up, by trial and error?

Look for Help – It Is Available!

As with RFID, when Carlota was born, tranquility came by being surrounded by experts in the field, and not just sympathizers who have faced that same situation. Firstly, I was provided with a handbook. Seriously! Guidelines about what to do in certain situations, such as tips to interpret the baby’s cries. Better than improvising with the newborn, right? Likewise, the handbook suggested the baby to sleep on her back, while just a few years ago it was suggested to sleep on her stomach.

Having professionals, who advise us following the latest recommendations and standards, gives us the peace of mind to do things well in RFID, too.

For example, some years ago it was always recommended to do pilot tests before deploying an RFID project, but then we realized that the results were conditioned by the selected reader and selected tags. Yes, it seems obvious, but before even starting those pilot tests, readers and tags had already been chosen within the wide spectrum of combinations existing in the market. Doesn’t it make sense to first know what we need before choosing them? For this reason, nowadays professional RFID companies use standards (have you heard about the TIPP methodology by GS1?) and laboratory equipment capable of determining which RFID readers and tags in the market will give better results in a real test.

To Do Comparison You Need a Reference

Carlota was weighed, her length was measured, the diameter of her head was measured… these were going to be the indicators that would tell us if her growth was adequate or not. It is not useful to keep trying things; we must measure, measure Carlota and RFID, and do it with the right tools. But not only that! What a surprise when the kilograms and centimetres at the hospital were not the same kilograms and centimetres at the drugstore, not even the same as those at the pediatrician. How should I decide if everything is okay or not when one tool tells me “yes” and another “no”?

And I remembered so many customers I have who do not worry about calibrating their RFID measuring equipment, and a tag that could work with any reader when tested with a given equipment, but the same tag that would only work with the most powerful and sensitive readers when tested with other equipment.

Define Your Requirements Before Selecting the Solution

I have always insisted on my clients that they should not choose the best tag, but the most appropriate tag for their application; with my daughter this situation happens from diapers to milk, but not only with her milk, also with the adults’ milk! What kind of milk do you have in your fridge? The one with more calcium, vitamins, etc. on the market; the cheapest one; or the one you consider good enough for you and your family? The same thing happens with RFID tags, where it makes no sense to pay more for the best tag on the market, because there is no such ideal tag, but the one that is the best one for your application, the best milk for you.

Regarding prices, what should we think of the cheapest ones? Again, if their quality and features are the most convenient for us, they are definitely the best choice. Please pay attention to both concepts: good quality and minimum required features.

And what about the quality? I do not mean good finishes or performance … but that once a model is chosen, every diaper, every tag, always perform the same way; their features do not vary among them and they have a certain margin of operation. It seems obvious, but the cheapest tags on the market are usually cheap because although they all work (i.e. a standard RFID reader can detect them), not all of them perform the same way; some tags can be detected at much longer distance than others, even though being the same model. I checked it when I bought some cheaper diapers than the usual ones, which seemed to absorb as much as the best ones, but it was not always like that, whether it was a discreet pee or a champion one.

“Always” is an interesting and challenging concept, but at least we need to be prepared before the chosen diaper stops performing as expected and what would be acceptable. What if a customer makes the wrong choice and purchases 5 million reusable tags regardless of their operating margin? They could perform well today, and at the slightest change in the initial conditions of use, stop doing so.

Select Suppliers That You Can Trust

Finally, once the feeding bottles, diapers, milk were chosen, and their brands, prices and features were evaluated, we had to decide where to buy such an amount of supplies. I have to admit that we started buying some stuff online and taking advantage of promotions at the hypermarket, but it all depends on how seriously we want to get involved in bringing our daughter up. Right now, there are many things we decided to buy in pharmacies and specialized stores, not only for the qualified professionals who helped us from the beginning, but also for the access they have given us to brand events, training, samples of new products…

In the end, we are learning day by day. Carlota relies on us, and we rely on professionals and industry standards, because there is a reference for every industry. If in children’s upbringing references are driven by the WHO, which are followed by pediatricians; in RFID industry the guidelines are given by ISO, GS1 and RAIN RFID Alliance, and there are more and more system integrators and end users who, by following them, have stopped suffering with the deployment and adoption, respectively, of the technology. Why should we suffer as the result of improvising with our newborn instead of enjoying her growth without worries?

Welcome, Carlota.
RFID, it’s your time.

Feb 01, 2017

GS1 Releases the TIPP Global Guideline – Streamlines RAIN RFID Adoption in Retail and Fosters Tagging Innovations

中文版 Chinese version

After over 18 months of hard work, the TIPP work group under the GS1 Global Office has now released the Tagged Item Performance Protocol (TIPP) for global usage. The guideline focuses on readability of tagged items, supports all the global RAIN RFID frequencies, and also comes with additional supportive documentation to make the adoption process easier.

Many experts have invested a considerable amount of time in the creation of this guideline, and I am personally pleased with the outcome. The feedback that I’ve already collected leads me to believe that the standard lays out useful guidance also for RAIN RFID projects outside of the retail sector. Read on to learn what this standard means for the industry and end users.

TIPP Simplifies RAIN RFID Adoption for Retailers

The early adopters of RAIN RFID technology needed to cope with plenty of piloting, in-store testing and other iterative procedures to make the technology work out for them. A decade later, now in 2017, both the technology itself and the surrounding ecosystem have matured. Standards also emerge to make adoption of technology easier, faster and less expensive.

TIPP grades establish a common vocabulary and methodology for the RAIN RFID ecosystem. Original chart adopted from Impinj Inc., with modifications.

The end users define their specific tagging requirements as TIPP grades that are easy to communicate between stakeholders. Similar standard communication methods are already utilized in barcoding, EPC tag data standard and product attributes – standards boil down complicated technical issues into simple ones thus removing headaches and misunderstandings.

But wait a minute – some retailers rely on the approved inlay lists from the ARC Program, so what is the relevance of TIPP for them?

TIPP Scales – Removes Bottleneck of the ARC Program

The well-known ARC Program uses a sophisticated test system to gather and compile a database of RFID label performance characteristics. Combined with the end user specific requirements gathered during pre-pilot tests, the local experts then maintain certified inlay lists across retail item categories.

However, a limitation of the ARC Program is that the only official place to perform the tests for a newly developed inlay or retail item category is the one Auburn University test laboratory in Alabama, USA. There are only a limited number of experts available for pre-pilots, thus a bottleneck gradually developed.

As the number of deployments started rising across continents, the ecosystem simply needed methodology that scales. Now that the TIPP guideline establishes open grades and open test methodology, anyone can start performing TIPP tests locally and the bottleneck is removed.

Under the hood TIPP is about 95% the same as the ARC test setup. The main difference is how the test data is interpreted. In fact it should be acknowledged that the ARC Lab Director Justin Patton and Director of Technology Dr. Senthilkumar CP both gave significant contribution during the creation of TIPP US.

TIPP grading test system is essentially a similar 4 channel setup as the ARC test system.

TIPP grading test system

Building the Future for Smarter Packages

An aspect of TIPP is that it enables tagging solutions providers to innovate with new breeds of smart packages since they are no longer dictated to work only with inlay-based RAIN labeling. Moving away from diverse inlay lists also brings increased possibilities for suppliers to drive down the cost of tagging. In this perspective I don’t expect the cost of an inlay to drop as such, instead I am confident that management, stocking of labels and finishing processes around tagging will find new efficiencies.

Origins of TIPP Date Back to VICS and ILRI

For the folks out there that want to understand how TIPP came to existence, I’ve gathered a brief history piece in another document. If ILRI, VICS or ARC Arkansas rings any bells, you may want to give the History of TIPP document two minutes of your time.

In essence TIPP is rooted on

  1. the joined effort within the retail industry to increase the efficiency and transparency of supply chains
  2. the pain that RFID projects caused for the early adopters in the retail industry
  3. the learnings from prior technology implementations, such as barcodes
  4. the ongoing RAIN RFID deployment evolution from handheld scanners to zone sensor infrastructure.

Next Step: Guideline to Be Adopted by Retailers

As the TIPP guideline was developed for the retail community by the request of the retail community, I next look forward to the retailers and their suppliers to start adopting this global guideline. To make the transition smoother this time around, the guideline comes with supportive documentation both for the retailers and solution providers.

The GS1 TIPP website offers new fantastic documentation for both techies and non-techies.

Needless to say, if there are any obstacles on the way, both the GS1 Member Organizations and technology vendors are glad and available to assist. A new test protocol for dense stacks will be added to the standard in Q2/2017 together with new grades – mighty good news for anyone in the sporting goods business!

Over time we all should learn more about the benefits that the standard offers. When it comes to simplifying RFID vendor compliance management, my recent blog post already discussed that side of the story.

Methodology Likely to Find Ground Also Outside of Retail

I’ve had the privilege to explain and justify TIPP for various stakeholders over the recent couple of years. Received feedback suggests that the end user segments outside of retail consider TIPP as a benchmark of how to express tagging requirements in a scalable way. One hurdle for those folks in various businesses will be to find and motivate an un-biased association to efficiently nurture the standard creation – same as VILRI and later GS1 did for retail.

Any comments or concerns? Please let me hear it! Let’s also utilize LinkedIn forums for additional discussions:

Jul 08, 2016

Downgrading Your Spec Does Not Make a Quality Tag – Thoughts About RFID Quality

中文版 Chinese version

I work as the CEO of Voyantic, a company that specializes in RFID test and measurement equipment. Since our systems are used by hundreds of companies around the world, we often come across cases where a customer needs our help to verify that their tags work as they should. This is a story about a case where things went wrong.

Tagging Athletes in Cross-country Skiing

We got involved with a very interesting case a couple of years ago. A small RFID integrator that we have known for some time wanted to tag athletes in a cross-country skiing competition. The idea was to use RFID for timing the race. And you can guess that if someone spends several hours on the ski track, being left without a race time is definitely not an option.

Cross-country skiing is a healthy hobby and also a good application for RFID timing – Photo by Sorbis / Shutterstock.com

There are many different ways to tag athletes in timing solutions. Common approaches in running competitions include integrating the RFID tags to the race bibs or attaching them to the shoes of the runners. However, in this case, the chosen approach was to buy wrist-band tags and to attach them to the ankles of the skiers. The tags were read by fixed readers that were set up on the side of the tracks.

The integrator went through the specifications of several different wrist-band tags and finally contacted a fairly well known maker of specialty tags for some samples. The samples arrived the following week, and the integrator ran some field tests. Everything worked well. He was able to detect every skier that passed the reader antenna.

So the integrator decided to order the tags that he needed for his application. Once again, there was a timely delivery of correct amount of tags. However, when he started to build the application, he noticed that not all of the tags were working. A typical discussion between an unsatisfied customer and a worried supplier followed.

The conclusion was that all the supplied tags worked according to the specification.

The tag manufacturer tested both working and non-working tags attached to the wrist of whoever they considered to be their standard-human. All tags were readable from a distance of 2 m which was the specification. But they didn’t all work in the end application. How is this possible?

Analysis

We got involved with the case at this point. We were asked to take a look at the tag samples to try to understand what was going on. So we ran a performance test for the tags using the Tagformance measurement system. The results from the Threshold Sweep measurement are shown below.

Performance variations of wrist-band UHF RFID tags measured with the Tagformance system

We tested the tags in free air, so they were not attached to a wrist or an ankle. But even in this setup it is clearly visible that there are significant variations in the tuning and performance of the tags. So this is what we think happened:

  1. The integrator decided to use the tags differently from what the manufacturer had specified
  2. The first samples sent by the tag manufacturer performed clearly above the spec
  3. The integrator concluded that this tag will work in the application
  4. The next tag batch – even though still within the original spec – performed differently
  5. A part of the tags didn’t work.

So, it is very hard to point fingers in this case. But there is something that the RFID industry needs to improve in. The industry is already doing a decent job in reporting the performance of their tags, e.g. in expected read range. But I think there is a lot to improve in how performance variations are reported, because that is a key factor in building reliable RFID systems.

And what happened with the skiing competition? Did the integrator get the system to work? He did. But he had to manually test through the tags and hand-pick the ones that worked well enough. Hardly a perfect outcome but every skier got their time.

My company Voyantic specializes in test and measurement solutions for the RFID industry. Are you interested to learn more about RFID quality control? Download our sample quality test report and contact us.

Download the Sample Quality Test Report!

See what performance testing can tell you about a tag – and how this data can be used to improve your production quality

Apr 21, 2016

RFID, Love or Die

Dear reader, my name is Lluis Bueno, and I love RFID. Do you? I belong to the Spanish company NextPoints, and in my work I have met hundreds of professionals and companies working in the RFID market without any passion for the technology… and most of them are not working in the RFID market anymore. So, why is love required for RFID business to survive? Let me share a few real stories with you.

Without any doubt, RFID is living its best moment: Internet of Things is more real than ever, RAIN RFID Alliance has more than 100 members, GS1 released TIPP guidelines for RFID tagging in retail, RFID inlays reached the lowest price ever without losing any quality… but perhaps, even with this friendly environment, the RFID company you created or joined some time ago is not alive anymore.

What was the reason for failure then? All of them had something in common: their lack of love towards the technology. Focusing on the product is of course important, but prioritizing price and forgetting collaboration with other players did kill them.

RFID is not just one more technology, it still needs your support to develop the market, and you need the market to be developed to make business.

RFID has its professional tools and methods of doing measurements, and this is something many of the professionals in the market are not aware of. There are only two ways to work with RFID: the right way or the wrong one, and there is no midway. Fortunately, I met Voyantic years ago and they showed the right way to me. Doesn’t it sound like some kind of religion? That was exactly what I felt the first time I met Mr. Juho Partanen: I had always thought I was doing things, if not the best way, then good enough for my RFID business. But I was doing wrong until he opened my eyes and he led me on the right track.

Most of the RFID companies ─ large end users, system integrators and even manufacturers of RFID readers or tags ─ are still using the same methods for testing their products and solutions which they used 5 years ago: conventional readers instead of professional testing systems, trial and error instead of real measurements, empirical reading distance instead of other key measured parameters. They think they are getting enough information from those old methods to understand how RFID works, but they really have no idea of what is happening. Why are they not taking their own business seriously? Is lack of budget the reason? No. Lack of love towards RFID is.

Most of the RFID companies think that purchasing RFID products at the best price will turn their company into a successful one. Forget it! Price just helps. Qualified partners, not only products but business providers, RFID alliances involvement, real RFID measurement tools…. You are missing much more aspects than just price. Are you aware of the changes in RFID ETSI frequencies, TIPP guidelines, RAIN RFID Alliance…? Information, commitment, involvement… definitely, love. Love is missing all along the supply chain, so we need to spread love since the beginning.

Please, you have chosen RFID as a driver technology for your projects, products and solutions. Love it and it will love you back with everlasting business. Take it seriously, or partner with companies who take it seriously for you, but do not ignore RFID and treat it as any other technology or it will die and make your business pass away.

In my work I have heard dozens of questions of RFID – why is it not performing as expected? What should be done differently to make my RFID business bloom? Download the “Questions of RFID – Loving Wisdom” document below to read the commonly asked questions with my answers.

Download Lluis Bueno’s RFID Q&A!

Download Lluis Bueno’s loving wisdom for frequently asked questions of RFID. You’ll find answers to many baffling RFID questions regarding tag and reader selection, system setups, link margins, and troubleshooting.
For your convenience, many of the answers come with pictures, too!

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.

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Learn How to Test UHF RFID Tags in the Aerospace Industry

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Oct 22, 2015

Avoiding the Next RFID Hype Rounds by Learning from the Past

Omni-channel retail, pharma serialization, internet of things, M2M, NFC – the world never runs out of buzz words that get us all worked up and excited. Then come to the budgeting rounds, and so many again overestimate the next year’s revenue growth, setting the sails towards the future disappointment. What is so tricky about it – how to see the forest from the trees?

I would keep my nose directed forward but also take care to learn from the past. Read on to grasp some of the past mistakes.

As we look back at the strange days of the tremendous RFID hype in 2004-2007, one can only shrug and shiver. Can you remember the factors that drove up the inflated expectations curve ten years ago? I was a rookie in the RFID business in 2004 and couldn’t tell which were major and minor industry drivers. Now the following themes become highlighted as I try to make sense of the past.

Royalty-free ISO Standard Makes Your Day

In 2004, the Class 1 Gen2 was ratified by EPCglobal. As no patent constraints had been found, the EPC Gen2 standard was also declared royalty-free by EPCglobal. The significance of Gen2 was manifested in 2006 as the International Standards Organization ISO approved it as a part of the 18000-6 standard. Class 1 Gen2 fixed many shortcomings of the original Class 1 and 18000-6B standards, and this global standard certainly paved the way for a smoother ride for the industry.

Do NOT use this switch!

Wal-Mart flipped the hype boost to overdrive with its announcements in early 2004 for the top 100 suppliers to tag pallets and cases by January 2005. This drove the whole RFID industry, and those around it, practically insane. If Wal-Mart was doing this, wouldn’t this drag the other retailers to do the same? Also, venture capitalists woke up and became fully alarmed not to miss the train. Money started pouring in RFID companies that were set to make millions in the Wal-Mart ecosystem alone, had short or non-existent revenue history, a few patents perhaps, and a bullish burn rate. It was a roller-coaster ride during which marketing agencies, lawyers, and event organizers must have made big dollars.

Go Only with a Solid Standard

By 2007 nothing much had happened. One central cause for Wal-Mart not getting ROI in their RFID expedition was the timing related to standards – the transition from Class 1 to Class 1 Gen2 took a long time and effort for the technology vendors, which also had other worries to handle. As Wal-Mart gradually began to pull back on RFID and Nasdaq started to slide, it was clear that most RFID companies were firmly headed towards the biggest hangover of all times. RFID hype had peaked, and burst, too.

Healthy Competition, or Something Lurking Behind the Scenes

One thing the investor money managed to get done was to destroy the profit margins in UHF RFID. Even the few good looking companies in RFID were nearly pushed over the edge by their revenue-hungry-investor-backed competitors that sold their goods probably at a below-zero profit. As technology was still immature and quality standards non-existent, the door was open for low-quality and no-quality vendors that gradually ate off the left-over positive karma around RFID. End users learned to be cautious and consider quality aspects as well, which now at the later time has turned into a competitive advantage for companies that have quality processes well established.

2008 to 2010 were terrible times for everyone. I can imagine how so many sales funnels had steadily forward surfing high-rise edges. As the pressure eased off just slightly, then came December of 2011 and Round Rock. That horrid battle took long and was mostly fought behind the scenes. I feel lucky for not knowing all the details, but the dispute did plenty of harm! Among other casualties, the Impinj IPO was scrapped in 2012, but at the same time, Smartrac was awake and managed to execute some significant acquisitions. The one universal splendid outcome from Round Rock was the fact that RFID companies learned to co-operate in the name of a greater common good.

Less Hype, More Industry Collaboration

There may be a time to go solo – but not now

We arrive at the present day – RFID hype is long gone, technology has matured, and studies clearly show how the RFID adoption is streamlining processes, bringing ROI and making the world a better place. Omni-channel retail, lean manufacturing, passive sensors, and expanding industry collaboration, such as the RAIN Alliance and GS1, are some of the drivers that bring more and more business to the technology vendors and solution providers.

The future of the RFID market looks set to continue at double digits rate growth. I do not see any unjustified hype on the horizon as of now. If only the RFID industry would be able to avoid the next pitfalls, such as new patent disputes, proprietary national protocols, and especially the IoT hype. In general, I feel optimistic over all this; however, having been an entrepreneur for over ten years, I won’t be surprised.

Do let me know if your crystal ball reflects the future any differently, and with more clarity! Send me an email (juho.partanen@voyantic.com) and let’s talk more!