Wisconsin RFID Lab Helps Manufacturers Fine-Tune Tag Strategy

MADISON, WISCONSIN — While there have been huge steps forward in RFID technology over the past few years, figuring out how to get it to work in real-world settings has been something of a dark art. Now, the University of Wisconsin has opened a research facility that can help companies eliminate some of the guesswork out of RFID implementations.

The UW RFID Lab, run by the University’s E-Business Consortium and Institute, is the result of collaboration between the University and over 50 companies, including both manufacturers and RFID-related hardware and software vendors.

Alfonso Guiterrez, the associate director for research and education for the E-Business Consortium recently gave me a tour of the lab, which has been in operation since last year, but it officially opened its doors in August. In addition to gaining an understanding of the range of practical applications for RFID, the lab is already beginning to provide members of the Consortium and its RFID Workgroup,with guidelines for how to best implement RFID in their manufacturing and warehouse environments, and how to calculate the return on investment from various RFID technologies.

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Researchers have collected data on how the contents of different products, and the shape and materials of their packaging, affect how well RFID tags work.

“The geometry of the product, and the material in it affect the propagation of radio wave,” said Guiterrez. The results of the test data, he said, will help manufacturers design both better RFID tags and packaging that is “RFID friendly.”

While many companies and universities operate their own RFID labs, the Wisconsin lab is unique in that it has brought together elements from both the real world and the lab. Test facilities mimic actual manufacturing and warehouse operations, while advanced instruments and software for designing, modeling and testing the performance of elements of RFID labels.

The lab consists of three research stations—two that test RFID performance in various real-world environments, and a third focused on designing and testing the performance of antennas designed to read passive RFID tags.

The antenna research station’s most visible element is its anechoic chamber—a room designed to provide perfect isolation from outside sources of radio frequency energy. It’s lined with special foam embedded with ferromagnetic particles to prevent any internal radio wave “echoes” that might distort test results.

In the chamber, researchers can test the performance of the RFID labels’ antennas—the part of the passive RFID tag that absorbs and retransmits radio signals—under absolute ideal conditions, testing every aspect of an antenna design—getting a baseline for its performance.

“You can analyze antennas separately from the chip, on the product or off it” said Guiterrez. UW researchers are currently using the antenna station to test designs for RFID antennas printed on labels with magnetic ink.

The lab’s two other stations are more focused on the real-world application of RFID. The first is equipped with a conveyor system for collecting data on the readability of RFID tags on various types of packages. “This is a controlled environment where we can change variables easily, but it’s still close to reality,” Guiterrez said.

Rockwell Automation helped build custom software to drive the conveyor system—a networked set of conveyors and handling equipment that includes a “blow-on” RFID label applicator from Zebra Technologies, optic sensors and readers from Alien Technology and Symbol. Autologik provided systems integration.

“We wanted the ability to have different configurations to test capabilities for different tag designs, and different types of packages.” said Guiterrez.

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Researchers can run tests on packages provided by the RFID Workgroup’s manufacturing members (ranging from Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to Master locks) at conveyor speeds of up to 600 feet per minute. All of the successful tag reads made by the RFID equipment are recorded to a database, and a statistical model of how well the tags work for each placement and package type can be created from the result.

The lab’s other “real world” station is a portable “portal” rig, designed to how well tags are read in various check-point scenarios—for example, on a palette being moved by forklift.

Using software from RedPrarie and other vendors, researchers can analyze which labels are read under various conditions. “We look at the interaction of multiple variables, such as the interaction of the location of the tags and the contents of a package or palette,” Guiterrez said.

The portal configuration can be used for other sorts of scenarios as well. “The portal works with people, too,” said Guiterrez. “Hospitals are asking us questions (about RFID implementations). And it works with vehicles as well; we’re doing work with the University parking system to prototype a parking control device.”

Given how cold Wisconsin winters can get, Guiterrez (who is Colombian) has a vested interest in getting the RFID parking system to work—he won’t have to open his window to swipe his parking pass anymore. But the core research behind the project will help reduce the cost of reliable RFID technology. That’s something everybody can get behind, no matter where they park.

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