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RFID Tag Systems Overview

An increasingly popular means of tagging and tracking inventory and retail merchandise is the use of RFID (radio frequency ID) tags. These small plastic tags (less than one inch long) can be affixed to or imbedded inside product boxes, adhered to CD cases, and even sewn into fabric. This technology promises to be the next step forward in inventory and tracking, and all companies -- whether they are retailers, suppliers, or simply need to track their own inventory -- need to understand RFID and its role.

In a typical scenario, passive RFID tags (so called because they require no power) are made of a thin semiconductor chip connected to a separate or embedded antenna. When a reader device is placed near the chip, the reader's electromagnetic field is picked up by the tag's antenna and the chip comes to life. The chip is usually programmed to reply with its predetermined number code, similar in design to a bar code. The reader receives the data from the RFID tag, and the item is looked up and tracked by the software application associated with the reader.

Using RFID is easier than trying to read a printed bar code, which must be visible for the optical reader to see it, which means it has to be on the outside of the packaging and in a location that the scanner can find. Since RFID tags use radio signals, the RFID reader only has to be near the tag, and so RFID tags can even be read inside a box. Because it allows for more automation, production lines run smoother and tracking does not always have to involve people.

Passive RFID tags (the most common and least expensive) cost less than 50 cents apiece, dropping to under 10 cents for quantities in the millions. The additional cost is still currently prohibitive if you are manufacturing a product retailing for less than a few dollars. But adding 50 cents to the cost of a high ticket item is negligible, especially if it keeps shoplifting down (with the RFID tag enclosed inside a sealed product box, for example, it is difficult to switch or alter the tag).

Newer model barcode printers are including RFID encoders inside, which means that you can both print a barcode label and prepare the RFID tag in one simple step. The combined tag and label can then be affixed to the item.

Tags can also do more than just send back a number. Some have memory onboard that can

store and remember things, like the number of times it was read, the date it was put on the shelf, the current environment (temperature or humidity), or the portion of the product used. If desired, this capability allows others (perhaps even consumers) to access this information without accessing your inventory database.
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