Integrating RFID Into Your Packaging

Market forces such as the RFID mandates from Target, Wal-Mart, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) have many manufacturers and suppliers focused on RFID simply as a compliance tool, overlooking the significant additional benefits of automatic identification technology.

In fact, by design, RFID enables superior supply chain efficiency and inventory management, resulting in increased productivity and accountability, decreased shrinkage, and a more robust bottom line.

A packaging supplier who is knowledgeable about evolving RFID technology and applications is a valuable resource to help you maximize ROI with your RFID integration.

RFID systems are completely customizable with infinite combinations of hardware and software. Each system is comprised of a transponder, a reader and software. (Click here to read RFID: A Smart Tag Primer for a complete explanation of RFID technology.) In this article we compare several forms of the RFID transponder and discuss possible applications of each.

RFID transponders are available in a variety of mediums, including:

  • Smart tags
  • Chipless tags
  • Smart labels
  • Conductive ink
  • Traceless taggants
  • A smart tag is a microchip RFID transponder, which includes an integrated circuit (IC) and an antenna, encased in a protective coating. Smart tags most commonly contain a silicon-based IC and a copper coil antenna, although demand for less expensive tags has spurred the development of organic alternatives and chipless tags.

    Smart tags can be applied to pallets, cases or item-level units at any point in the supply chain, or integrated into the product packaging at the point of production. They are readable through most materials (except liquid and metal) and many smart tag systems include anti-collision software, to enable multiple tags to be read simultaneously.

    A basic smart tag offers a 96-bit EPC, which provides more than enough data storage capacity to track-and-trace items from point of manufacture to point of sale. Gen 2 tags offer a 256-bit EPC code, appropriate for specialized applications that require extensive data storage, such as the prescription drug pedigree.

    Smart tags can be applied either externally to product packaging or imbedded within the package or case. They are unobtrusive and do not interfere with graphic design elements, making them an easy addition to most consumer goods packaging.

    Smart tags can also be implanted in key chain fobs or rigid plastic cards. Automobile keyless entry and Mobil Speed Pass are two well-known examples.

    A chipless tag is an RFID tag that transmits data via either a conductive polymer or a reflective material instead of an IC microchip. Conductive polymer tags operate the same way as RFID smart tags do, differing only in component material.

    Reflective tags return a radio wave image to a computer that compares it with the identifying image on file for that item. A positive match means the item is correctly identified. Tags with RF reflecting fibers can be woven into paper or fabric for specialized applications.

    Although chipless tags typically cost less than silicon-based tags, their use in supply chain management is limited by their inability to read multiple tags at one time.

    A smart label is simply a label with an RFID tag integrated into it. An RFID microchip is sandwiched between a paper substrate and an adhesive, resulting in an RFID transponder that can be printed and applied like a traditional label.

    Smart labels are frequently used for “slap and ship”, which is the term for affixing an RFID label to a case or pallet just before it is shipped from the supplier to the retailer. Because the label is applied externally (to the case or pallet) as the final step before shipping, benefits of “slap and ship” have generally been limited to compliance with retailer requirements.

    However, if you think of a smart label as a flexible, printable RFID device, it is easy to imagine creative ways to incorporate it into individually packaged products.

    Conductive ink, also called RFID ink, is considered by many to be the most exciting recent development in the printing industry. Precisia and Parelec are two of the companies that have developed conductive metal-based inks.

    So far, conductive inks have been limited to printing RFID antennas directly onto labels and packaging through conventional printing methods. Research is ongoing to devise a method of printing the IC with RFID ink.

    Use of conductive ink significantly lowers the cost of RFID tagging, and offers smart tag security with exceptional application flexibility.

    The newest form of RFID tag is Creo’s Traceless® taggant. Traceless® is a powder that is mixed with ink or other fluid and applied to product packaging during manufacturing. Suspending the powder particles in fluid allows them to form a random pattern known as the “taggant image signature”. A computer records/retains this signature as the item’s unique identifier, like the EPC of traditional RFID.

    When the item passes by a Traceless® reader, the reader first confirms the presence of the taggant powder (the pass/fail portion of the security test), and then matches the “taggant image signature” with the one on file for that item.

    What really distinguishes Traceless® is that it is undetectable, making it virtually impossible to counterfeit or tamper with. Using proprietary methods, Creo mixes a ratio of taggant in solution that is too small to be perceived visually or chemically, and is detectable only by Traceless® readers.

    From inventory management to anti-theft control to pharmaceutical pedigrees, RFID technology is revolutionizing the packaging industry. Awareness and education are the keys to maximizing your ROI with RFID.

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