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  • 16 Aug 2018

L&L turns 40: The essence of smart labels

Our look into the history of Labels & Labeling and the industry takes us back to issue 4, 1998*, where Chris Hook, then strategy manager of TIRIS Division, Texas Instruments, examines ‘smart labels’: radio frequency identification (RFID) devices designed to be used for the secure identification and tracing of items travelling across commercial boundaries and national borders, delivered in the familiar format of a thin label**.

‘Smartness’ comes from the inclusion of a semiconductor-based, data carrying inlay, laminated into the material of a label during manufacture giving a label features such as non-contact, non-line-of-sight reading and programming, dynamic data storage, and the ability to communicate information along with many other similar labels effectively at the same time.

Chris declares that he is an ardent fan of RFID tags as versatile and effective data carriers in an increasingly diverse range of applications, though he evidently recognises where it is thoroughly inappropriate to seek to apply RFID relative to barcodes. The aim of this article is to explore how RFID must be presented in order to attempt penetration into the territory of the ‘thin and sticky’ –  barcoded labels.

Market demands

In a paper I presented at a Cowise conference last year I focused on the application of RFID to product authentication, and exemplified the global problem of product counterfeiting with these figures:

  • The UK Government declared that unpaid excise duty on tobacco and spirits appeared as ‘lost revenue’ to the Exchequer topping US$1.2 billion per annum;
  • The recorded music industry lost about US$2.2 billion in 1995 through the sale of counterfeit pre-recorded tapes, audio CDs, etc.;
  • The US Business Software Alliance claims piracy is costing the US business community about US$2.3 billion annually through lost sales. This relates to losses of about US$4,373 per minute!;
  • In addition to the hard dollar losses suffered by product manufacturers through the sale of counterfeit goods, brand owners also suffer less quantifiable losses through the sales of counterfeit merchandise. If consumers discover that fakes are in circulation, the brand owner suffers what I call a ‘soft’ financial loss; that is the value of a brand is diminished.

Defeating counterfeiting operations will benefit brand owners by increasing hard dollar gains in sales (eliminating losses), and improving brand image and therefore share value. Counterfeiters ride on the back of the original producer, who will have invested millions in product design, development, and marketing.

Just to give an example of market demand for tags in the form of smart labels, I’ve focused here on issues of product authentication which can be addressed by application of uniquely coded tags, either in the form of tamper-evident labels, or embedded within the fabric of an object. Items tagged with smart labels can be traced uniquely and individually from point of manufacture to point of sale.

Given the international nature of manufacturing, distribution and consumption, one can make no assumptions about distribution paths; products are made anywhere in the world, distributed through a variety of channels, and arrive for sale in a very wide variety of locations.

So in aspiring to produce identification products which could be applied at a wide variety of sources, RFID product manufacturers can not make assumptions about geographic limits of use or characteristics of population at any given point.   

The marketing environment

Here are some of the ‘hurdles’ l observe when thinking about the introduction of smart label products:

  • Price/cost; capital equipment, consumables and maintenance;
  • Compatibility with existing numbering systems;
  • Ease of integration into existing data capture systems;
  • Harmonious co-existence with other data capture products, both similar (RFID) and dissimilar (barcodes);
  • Operable internationally;
  • Easy to buy (not easy to sell).

It is recognised that when seeking to introduce any new product into a mature market (such as retailing or the airlines), it must integrate seamlessly into existing data capture and information management systems. For retail goods, article and item numbering schemes are in place across the world, and administered by independent bodies.

Data consistent with existing UPC (Universal Product Code), EAN, or other unique product identification codes can be stored in RFID tags, thus satisfying the requirement of easy integration into the data collection environment. Also, primary differentiation between classes of tags used in different applications will become necessary, and this is achievable using existing codes called ‘Application Identifiers’.

As we survey industries, and particularly those concerned with product and item distribution, there is a distinct prevalence of label printers issuing a seemingly endless variety of labels. Most labels display information in both human readable and machine readable format (commonly linear or 2-D codes).

Being able to springboard from this installed equipment base is to be considered as a benefit when seeking to launch a new class of RFID products. And is this objective beyond reach? I believe not, and will return to address this proposition later in this article.

The issues of co-existence

‘Co-existence’ is the term I use to describe the harmonious existence of one automatic identification technology alongside others, and specifically the ability of products from different RFID product manufacturers to ‘co-exist’ in the same data capture environment without adversely affecting the performance of different data capture systems.

No standards exist for RFID products in item level identification, and because of the complexity of moving products or items from random origins to widespread destinations, practical standards will likely takes years to develop and yet more time to be adopted.

Yet the market demand for cost-effective solutions is self-evident. Hence. if technological advances make cost-effective solutions viable, then the market has expressed its willingness to use new products without standards, even though it is recognised that in many cases international standardisation may be an essential prerequisite to worldwide deployment.

The inevitable consequence of market forces is that there will appear in circulation in the environment at large number of tags from differing sources: by ‘sources’ I mean manufacturers of RFID tags with differing core circuits, which do not use the same communications protocol.

There are limited degrees of freedom within which product designers must operate, which inevitably means that products from non-cooperating manufacturers will have some common characteristics, operating frequency perhaps being the most obvious.

A worst case scenario is where, for sound technical reasons, non-cooperating product manufacturers choose to make products which work in a common frequency band in which there is no channelisation. Exercising their freedom in the absence of a standard, each product designer will likely choose differing but equally viable solutions.

The likely consequence is that when tags from manufacturer ‘A’ are energised by signals from a reader made by manufacturer ‘B’, both operating at roughly the same frequency, both tag types ‘A‘ and ‘B’ will respond on a common channel (frequency), and likely make it difficult if not impossible for data to be gathered from either family of tags.

If the systems designed by ‘A‘ and ‘B’ have not been conceived anticipating that this real situation will occur, then it is possible that a reader from ‘A’ or ‘B' will not be able to read its own family of tags if tags from the other supplier are present.

And a solution devised to meet the needs of one industry sector must take account of other industries. Consider for a moment an item of checked airline luggage, identified with an RF bag tag type ‘A’; the bag contains consumer goods also identified using RFID tags or labels, and those smart labels are made by one or more other non-cooperating manufacturers. The presence of tagged items in the baggage should not affect the operation of the baggage identification system. That is the baggage identification system must be able to distinguish between tags applied to identify baggage, and those incidentally found in the baggage identification and sortation environment at a primary level and without reference to a database.

A proposal for co-existence

The key judgement criteria for a manufacturer to be able to declare that their products have been designed to co-exist with others operating in the same frequency band, is that a tag should only respond to a command, rather than a simple unmodulated excitation signal. In this way, tags from family ‘A’ would only respond to commands issued to elicit data from ‘A’ family tags, and likewise family ‘B’ products would only respond to commands addressed to ‘B’ family tags.

In the case where it is known that tags from different families might be present at an identification point, readers can be designed to either gather data only from one family of tags, or to gather data from all tags present. Such products (referred to by some as ‘multi-standard readers’) have been shown to work with differing low frequency (LF) tags, which do not all operate within a narrow frequency band, unlike the emerging ‘smart label’ products which operate in the 13MHz frequency band.

Innovative manufacturing techniques

Commercially-viable identification products which use radio frequency techniques are mostly based on semiconductor technology and components. Perhaps this is not too surprising when you consider the need for ‘smartness’ in these identification systems.

As more companies realise benefits through deployment of RFID in large-scale projects, and we are able to manufacture and ship millions of transponders per annum, economies of scale work in our favour to help us in turn reduce the cost of products to our customers, and thereby facilitate greater use of such products.

Yet it is clear that manufacturing techniques and, perhaps to a lesser extent in the near term, core technology, limits how far down we can push the cost of products, whilst sustaining profitable business which in turn allows investment to generate new products in response to market demand. Fundamentally the unit cost of tags is one of the key limiting factors determining the scope of application of RFID products.

With innovation in product manufacturing techniques, significant investment in new high-speed assembly and mechanisation, and innovative packaging and connection techniques, dramatic cost reductions in manufacturing RFID tags to be applied as smart labels can be achieved.

The geometry of silicon integrated circuits – ‘geometry’ is what governs the minimum size of individual circuit elements – is being relentlessly pushed towards the sub-100nm target. This means that data density will continue to rise, and this is important as we consider the physical size of a data-carrying component.

Chip size reductions and the associated ability to convey more information in smaller volumes are facts of life. But, care must be exercised in assessing the physical compatibility between the applications environment and the required durability of a tag or label. A large chip may well be able to carry all the required information, but could it withstand the rigours of the environment, considering the likelihood that it will be afforded only minimal protection by a paper cover? Also, leading-edge semiconductor technology carries a price premium.

But, consider what it would mean to the airlines  to be able to grab data from a tagged bag which revealed not only a unique identifier, but also the origin, onward routing and security screening status of a bag travelling at speed though a sortation system, without reference to a database, Furthermore, the data carrying element is capable of storing dynamically alterable data. All this is not possible using the barcode tag in use today.

Delivering smart labels

The proposition is that we want to be able to issue smart labels from upgraded thermal printers, since:

Smart labels will co-reside alongside barcoded labels;

There is a general need to have human-readable information visible on a label, and this will be true for the foreseeable future;

There is a significant installed base printers.

There is no reason why information encoded into a barcode should not also be written to the tag, achieved by an RF read/write module integrated into the print-on-demand printer. Given this, the following key benefits are apparent:

No increase in printer footprint; Limited changes to system software; Operational consistency; Reduce printer maintenance; Negligible operator training; Automatic verification of coding. I want to expand on this last point. The in-situ programmability of a smart label means that the printer is able to perform read-after-write verification as part of the label coding and issuing process. This eliminates another headache associated with print-on-demand printers: that of variable print quality caused by the lack of proper maintenance, and for which there is commonly no in-line inspection in routine use at the point of issue.

And so to the practicality of issuing a smart label from a thermal printer, and for that label to be thoroughly durable in the applications environment. Traditionally, RFID tags are delivered into the applications environment packaged in a plastic moulding or glass sleeve, to protect the electronics. Given the concept of smart labels, this is no longer possible, since the printers now being asked to issue smart labels were not designed so to do.

Thus, in order to be successful with the proposed delivery strategy, the new component must be designed so that, with minimal packaging (just thin layers of plastic and/or paper), it can be delivered through the normal paper path of a print-on-demand printer: bending; heat; pressure. After the printed label is applied, the smart data carrier must perform with excellent durability.

Lastly, in an appraisal of how an RFID product manufacturer might attempt to deliver smart labels to the end-customers of such [thin and sticky] consumable products, one should consider the role of label makers today.

Why should it change? These companies provide a valuable service shipping preformatted or pre-printing labels, and I determine that they will have an important role to play in the successful and widespread deployment of smart labels.


The proposition is that a new breed of ‘smart label’ RFID tags can be created and delivered into environments where individual, item-level identification is required, and that the means of delivery and coding is upgraded print-on-demand thermal printers.

This proposition is being proved by close collaboration with some of the world’s leading printer manufacturers and label makers.

Consistency with existing product and item numbering schemes will be essential. At the data level, this too has been achieved by using smart labels which are capable of being programmed at the point of issue with data that is consistent with that encoded into a barcode symbol or printed in human-readable form.

I believe that harmonious co-existence between differing families of largely similar tags is both possible and practical, provided that RFID product manufacturers take an enlightened view, are fully cognisant of the problems I’ve described, and are prepared to design sufficiently smart products so that they can ‘co-exist’ with similar products from other vendors.

To close, it is now possible to issue a smart label from a commonplace label printer, just as easily as you print and apply a barcoded label today. I believe we are about to witness the dawn of a new era in RFID products, breaking into the hallowed ground of the ‘thin and sticky’ barcode labels, demonstrating the superiority of radio frequency identification technology.

*This article was first published in Labels & Labeling issue 4, 1998

**This transcription is a direct replication of the article as published

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