CustomWare Designs

RFID & EPC Defined

RFID
(Radio Frequency Identification)
&
EPC
(Electronic Product Code)

Electronic Product Code (EPC)

The EPC is a new product numbering standard under development by the Uniform Code Council (UCC) that can be used to identify a variety of items using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. The 96-bit EPC code links to an online database, providing a secure way of sharing product-specific information along the supply chain.

Like other RFID solutions, the EPC's ability to be read without a line-of-sight offers users significant timesavings. This is further enhanced by the ability to update information automatically to the EPC's online database -- identifying where and when a case or pallet of goods arrived, for example -- in supply chain logistics applications.

The EPC technology, in conjunction with the expanding production of RFID capable printers/encoders, has the potential to revolutionize the supply chain by providing more accurate information about product movement, stock rotation, inventory levels and other management information. It also would be a significant tool for product recalls and theft prevention.

CustomWare® offers RFID printing and encoding solutions for a variety of industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, hospitality, retail, security, and warehousing. CustomWare Designs markets a commercially available bar code printer/RFID encoder for smart labels, and offers industry-leading, proven smart label technology combined with experience with the world's leading manufacturer of bar code printing and label solutions.

CustomWare® uses Zebra Technologies hardware which enables a single print station to produce RFID smart labels and conventional bar code labels on demand-without having to stop operations to change label material. Label formatting software resident in the printer manages the entire process for convenient, high-throughput print operations. Zebra's hardware is an ideal solution for operations that must support both "EPC™-compliant" smart labeling and traditional bar code printing because it makes the most efficient use of smart label materials and protects productivity by eliminating the need for media changeovers.

Traditional smart label printers use specialty media that has RFID inlays layered into the label stock during the conversion process. Every label on the roll includes an RFID transponder, which is encoded as the label is being printed. The processes required to convert smart label inlays into printer stock adds significant cost to the total cost of each smart label-often more than the cost of the chip itself!

With Zebra's hardware, companies can use almost any label material to create smart labels. The Zebra Alchemy process encodes a separate RFID inlay and bonds it to the label material after the label is printed. This two-step process makes converted smart label material unnecessary, so you have the same full choice of cost-effective label material you have always enjoyed. With the label formatting software, you control which labels include RFID inlays and which do not, so no inlays are wasted on labels that do not need RFID.

CustomWare® embodies the most efficient process for creating smart labels on demand because it:

  • Eliminates the need for specialty media;

  • Reduces the ongoing operating cost of an RFID system;

  • Does not require time-consuming media changes when print operations change from traditional label printing to smart labeling;

  • Simplifies compliance with EPC-tagging requirements.

Zebra Alchemy can support EPC and many other RFID specifications, standards and frequencies. Alchemy has been integrated into special version of Zebra's PAX™ print engines, the R110 PAX, so users can automatically print, encode and apply "EPC-compliant" smart labels to cartons, cases, pallets and other shipping containers.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers You Need to Know

What is RFID?

RFID stands for radio frequency identification. It is an automatic identification technology whereby digital data encoded in an RFID tag or "smart label" is captured by a reader using radio waves. Put simply, RFID is similar to bar code technology but uses radio waves to capture data from tags, rather than optically scanning the bar codes on a label. RFID does not require the tag or label to be seen to read its stored data-that's one of the key characteristics of an RFID system.

What is an RFID tag?

RFID tags consist of an integrated circuit (IC) attached to an antenna-typically a small coil of wires-plus some protective packaging (like a plastic card) as determined by the application requirements. RFID tags can come in many forms and sizes. Some can be as small as a grain of rice. Data is stored in the IC and transmitted through the antenna to a reader. RFID tags are either "passive" (no battery) or "active" (self-powered by a battery). Tags also can be read-only (stored data can be read but not changed), read/write (stored data can be altered or re-written), or a combination, in which some data is permanently stored while other memory is left accessible for later encoding and updates.

What is a "smart label"?

"Smart labels" are a particularly innovative form of RFID tag and operate in much the same way. However, a smart label consists of an adhesive label that is embedded with an ultra-thin RFID tag "inlay" (the tag IC plus printed antenna). Smart labels combine the read range and unattended processing capability of RFID with the convenience and flexibility of on-demand label printing. Smart labels also can be pre-printed and pre-coded for use. In on-demand applications, the tag inlay can be encoded with fixed or variable data and tested before the label is printed, while the label can contain all the bar codes, text, and graphics used in established applications. Smart labels are called "smart" because of the flexible capabilities provided by the silicon chip embedded in the tag inlay. A read/write smart label also can be programmed and reprogrammed in use, following initial coding during the label production process.

What is an RFID reader?

A reader is basically a radio frequency (RF) transmitter and receiver, controlled by a microprocessor or digital signal processor. The reader, using an attached antenna, captures data from tags then passes the data to a computer for processing. As with tags, readers come in a wide range of sizes and offer different features. Readers can be affixed in a stationary position (for example, beside a conveyor belt in a factory or dock doors in a warehouse), portable (integrated into a mobile computer that also might be used for scanning bar codes), or even embedded in electronic equipment such as print-on-demand label printers.

How does RFID work?

Information is sent to and read from RFID tags by a reader using radio waves. In passive systems, which are the most common, an RFID reader transmits an energy field that "wakes up" the tag and provides the power for the tag to operate. In active systems, a battery in the tag is used to boost the effective operating range of the tag and to offer additional features over passive tags, such as temperature sensing. Data collected from tags is then passed through familiar communication interfaces (cable or wireless) to host computer systems in the same manner that data scanned from bar code labels is captured and passed to computer systems for interpretation, storage, and action.

Where is RFID used?

Currently, the most common uses are found in work-in-process tracking, security and access control systems, closed-loop asset management, and car immobilizers, as well as pay-at-the-pump and freeway toll passes. For example, the Ford Motor Co. Uses RFID to track engine blocks through its harsh production process; Gap Inc. has used RFID to track denim jeans through its supply chain to the in-store display shelf; Exxon Mobil Corp.'s Speedpass cashless payment system uses RFID technology; and RFID tags are applied to the shoelaces of all competitors in the Boston Marathon to track them at points throughout the course and to identify them the instant they cross the finish line.

How does RFID differ from bar coding?

Conceptually, bar coding and RFID are quite similar; both are intended to provide rapid and reliable item identification and tracking capabilities. The primary difference between the two technologies is that bar coding scans a printed label with optical laser or imaging technology, while RFID scans, or interrogates, a tag using radio frequency signals. Because of the low cost of bar code labels, established standards, and global deployment, bar coding is widely accepted while, in general, RFID has been limited to niche applications. Furthermore, just as there are different bar code symbologies in use today, there are different RFID standards regarding the way data is captured from tags-the RF communications protocol.

What information is stored on a smart label o tag?

Data stored in a tag will be determined by the application of the system and appropriate standards. For example, a tag could provide identification for an item being manufactured, goods in transit, or even the short-range location and identity of a vehicle, animal, or individual. This fundamental data often is referred to as a "license plate code," similar to the information that is stored on a bar code label. When linked to a database, additional information may be accessed through the reader such as item stock number, current location, status, selling price, and batch code. Alternatively, an RFID tag may carry specific information or instructions immediately available upon reading, without the need to reference a database to determine the meaning of a code. For example, the desired color of paint on a car that is entering the paint assembly area on the production line, or a manifest to accompany a shipment of goods.

What are some of the key attributes of RFID?

Key attributes of RFID include:

  • Because tag data is transmitted and received by radio frequency, RFID does not require line-of-sight to read and write the tag data. RF signals also are capable of traveling through a wide array of non-metallic materials.

  • Most RFID systems can simultaneously capture data from many tags within range of the antenna. This unique feature is known as "simultaneous identification."

  • RFID tags can be read very rapidly. RFID readers are capable of capturing tag identification codes at a rate of up to 1,000 tags per second.

  • RFID tags can be encased in hardened plastic coatings making them extremely durable and able to be tracked through harsh production processes. They can be read through grease, dirt, and paint.

  • RFID tags can store large amounts of data. High-end RFID tags can contain up to one megabyte of memory (one million characters), although most tags only contain a small fraction of this memory, perhaps as little as 64 bits.

  • Some RFID tags are able to support read/write operations, enabling real-time information updates as a tagged item moves through the supply chain.

Can RFID track me?

At the retail level, RFID is no more invasive than the bar code is today. Even though RFID uses radio frequency, the relatively short read ranges do not make it practical for use as a remote surveillance device. RFID is not-and should not be compared to-the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Will RFID replace bar codes?

No. RFID and bar coding are considered complementary data capture technologies. Even with large-scale adoption of RFID, there will be a continued need for bar coding to co-exist with RFID into the foreseeable future. The unique attributes of RFID make it an enabler of new applications, especially where the technical fit and operational benefits of the technology make it a better solution than what is in use currently.

What is EPC RFID?

The Electronic Product Code (EPC) is a new product numbering standard under development by the Uniform Code Council and EAN International that can be used to detect, track, and control a variety of items using RFID technology. The initiative started as an end-user driven research project at the Auto-ID Center of MIT. The EPC structure can distinguish unique items of the same type. For example, two DVD videos have the same standardized universal product code (UPC) for the purposes of trade. Typically represented in a bar code, the UPC allows computer systems to determine the manufacturer of the DVD, the title of the film, and apply prescribed business rules to facilitate the trade or sale. EPC essentially extends the UPC code so that two DVD videos of the same title can be distinguished one from another, allowing the individual item to be uniquely identified.

Associated with EPC RFID developments are new Internet services that enable individual items to be tracked and traced globally across traditional industry boundaries. This approach to a standardized, RFID-based, Internet-connected data capture system is called the EPC Network, and is being commercialized by EAN and UCC. For more information about EPC RFID, visit www.zebra.com/epc or www.uc-council.org/autoid/index.html.


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