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  • 17 Jul 2011

Think labels. Think smart

Barry Hunt examines developments in the world of smart/RFID labels

Making labels cleverer, smarter and more intelligent is where the future is said to lie. Global end-users and other influencers already confirm this. After all, smart labels can communicate data at levels that far exceed those achieved by printed text, optically-readable bar codes or graphic images. Of course, everyone is familiar with programmable RFID tags which transmit data via radio frequencies to an RF reader. They use silicon chips and antenna inlays (variously called a transponder or integrated circuit) embedded in a thin polyester or polyamide film. Now we are seeing the growth of  'smart-active' labels (SALs), as well as 'intelligent' labels.

Roll-label printers generally have mixed feelings about these developments. Most perceive that mixing with the smart label set is out of their reach, especially firms serving smaller local buyers. They may well be right. Besides clever converting machinery, they need clever personnel that can exploit them and generate ideas and applications. Nevertheless, several RFID machine manufacturers offer entry-level machines to insert pre-made RFID inlays, or transponders, between facestock and liner materials (wet inlays), or supply them without an adhesive backing (dry inlays).

This allows some level of market accessibility, but complete converting systems are required for producing scaleable volumes of smart labels, baggage tags and tickets. These roll-fed machines include delaminators, RFID inserters, relaminators, die cutters, slitter/rewinders or fan-folders in web widths up to 20 ins  (520mm). Most systems include inspection modules with reject facilities for faulty inlays. The leading manufacturers, such as Bielomatik, Melzer and Mühlbauer, offer end-user turnkey solutions, which may include chip-based ID cards, passports, licenses and other services. 

This fact alone highlights the barriers that most mainstream roll-label printers face. They may have the required substrate converting and process technology skills, but the ability to develop links within integrated auto ID and RFID systems as one of several third-party suppliers is another matter, as Jeremy Westcott, Edale’s head of sales and marketing, explains: ‘There is no doubt that enquiries for equipment for producing smart labels have decreased since their peak around Labelexpo Europe 2007. Then, a move into RFID appeared a very attractive proposition, with a great deal of hype around the growth of use of RFID in both the ticket and label markets. However, strong competition, high associated costs and a requirement for knowledge of complete RFID solutions meant that many enquiries never came to light.’      

He accepts that the volume of RFID-related enquiries for Edale's Lamda web processing platforms have remained relatively static, but says the quality of enquiries has undoubtedly increased. ‘Our more recent enquiries are predominantly focused on volume production. We have always promoted off-line inlay insertion, which naturally lends itself to this method, but differentiated through increased speed and wider web widths over our competition. This combination and a flexible approach to machine configuration has resulted in a number of successful smart product installations.’

For converters, one of the more positive aspects is that multi-level RFID technology has spread to all corners of the globe, reflecting the growth of transport ticketing services, parcel services, source tagging, event ticketing, returnable transit items (RTIs), toll and parking collection systems, and mass transit tickets. This expansion into new market segments already affects many aspects of our daily lives, just like the ever present bar code.

Cost factors

System vendors agree that a more mature and growing market has followed a better understanding of the issues that determine return on investments, rather than concerns related solely to costs. A quick and positive ROI is especially important to potential RFID users during times of economic downturns. Nevertheless, it was the introduction of cheaper, and more versatile microchips – heralding the '5-cent label' – that made item-level tagging a feasible proposition. Today this centers around passive RFID tags, which draw their power from the magnetic field created by a chip's antenna. Even cheaper are the chipless tags for basic applications involving a minimum of data. By contrast, the chips in active tags still cost many dollars each. Active tags have an internal battery to power microchip circuitry and read and write data via a radio signal with a greatly expanded reading distance. They are ideal for tracking expensive items, such as shipping containers, or monitoring environmental conditions. 

Another vital boost to RFID usage was in tidying up the various standards governing the read/write radio frequencies to identify individual products. The foundation of the Electronic Product Code (EPC) – a unique code embedded in the RFID tag's memory – was a landmark that led to the EPCglobal Network. The latest Generation 2 standard (Gen2) now drives global standardization of tags/inlays. Ultra high-frequency (UHF) tags for tracking such items as containers and pallets have a working frequency of 915 mHz and have transformed global RFID usage. Gen2 also applies to the High Frequency (HF) inlays used for ticketing and some item-level tagging operating with a frequency of 13.56 mHz.

Most chip makers, software developers and printer/encoder manufacturers have adopted UHF Gen2 technology as the platform for future growth. Nevertheless, older protocols remain in use, subject to revisions or replacement by newer versions. Each requires separate reading and encoding equipment, supported by dedicated management infrastructures. As a result, several manufacturers have developed printer-encoders with a multi-protocol capability.          

Among several proprietary products, Bielomatik's latest RF-Loop Tag allows converters to manufacture so-called wet antennas from self-adhesive materials and a thin 10-micron aluminum foil that is die cut. The near-field UHF tags are said to offer many low-cost solutions for large-scale, item-level usage, including hidden inlays for the packaging industry. Other types of tags have solar batteries that permit RFID labels to continuously monitor their environment in real time without requiring an RF power source.

Electronic printing is an alternative technology for producing antennas for inexpensive inlays. It also permits the simultaneous printing of other parts of the label or tag to help reduce costs. Instead of etching, the 'eco-friendly' process uses conductive inks, usually deposited by screen process printing, although flexo and gravure have been used. With its precise drop-on-demand deposition, inkjet printing is also seen to have good potential. While some inlay manufacturers may question the resolution quality and read/write performance of printed RFID circuits, high-volume production is already a reality. For example, Exax, a South Korean chemical manufacturer, has been operating the world's first production line for printed HF and UHF RFID tags for over two years, using a customized rotary screen line from Stork Prints and its own conductive inks.

Combining the latest 3G (or higher) smart phone technology with Near Field Communication (NFC) technology is an interesting development that could widen the involvement of roll-label converters. The NFC chips are embedded in the label and can communicate with any smart phone containing a Near Field Device to display the information on the phone’s screen. Unlike RFID it does not require a lot of expensive hardware to read and write the chips; that functionality is already built into the new smart phones.

NFC suppliers to application developers include UPM RFID, which recently introduced a new selection of RFID NFC tags and inlays. They include small products like the round UPM Circus and UPM MiniBlock (15 x 15 mm) for advertising and loyalty card applications. The company is building a global network of companies to meet market demands driven by a rapidly growing number of NFC smart phone users.

In a related development, the Dutch firm of NXP Semiconductors is collaborating with UPM RFID, a manufacturer of passive HF and UHF tags and inlays, to design and manufacture NFC tags and inlays for various mobile applications. They include peer-to-peer data exchange (such as business cards), location-based advertisements, loyalty programs and discount coupons.          

This highlights the growth of specialized turnkey services for specific item-level applications. For example, TagSys targets the luxury watch and jewellery market at one level, while offering track and trace systems for the pharmaceutical and healthcare markets at another. Like most other suppliers it carries out its own R & D and tag design, while relying on third-party suppliers for system components.

Even smarter

The smart-active labels (SALs) and intelligent labels mentioned earlier are the polar opposites of the commodity labels. There are numerous examples, such as SALs that respond to external/internal conditions to monitor microbial growth, and time or temperature-sensitive conditions. Others indicate sterilization or autoclaving levels, as well as eliminate oxygen and manage moisture levels in pharmaceutical packs. Many smart labels respond to trigger-type activities, such as container filling, the release of pressure or gases, or exposure to UV energy. Food freshness indicators represent another important SALs market. Cumulatively, they can provide proof of some essential process control, or proof of proper handling and storage.

Much has been written about the ability of smart/intelligent labels and tapes to help deter retail theft, aid anti-counterfeiting programs, provide tamper proof security, and authenticate consumer products. Security methods can include fluorescent inks and varnishes, special coatings, coin reactive inks, micro text, scratch-off surfaces, laser-sensitive inks, hidden images, holographic and thermochromic inks. However, according to Ronald Noble, Interpol's secretary general, the money currently spent on brand protection is negligible. In 2008 only US$4.8bn was invested in this area, less than one percent of the estimated US$650bn lost through counterfeiting that year.

Despite the availability of numerous security products and services, experts point to the lack of secure and scalable technology available for widespread adoption in a practical and cost-effective way. The new 1-Tag, jointly developed by Heidelberg and the Leo Burnett advertising agency, is claimed to offer a secure solution for high-value and safety-related products. It combines a random copper wire pattern with a 2D cryptographic image applied with a Heidelberg Linoprint drop-on-demand inkjet printer. Consumers can check the tag's encryption on a smart phone using free decryption software, allowing highly accessible checks of a product's authenticity. Brand owners can incorporate the codes into every level of packaging from shipping pallets through to the pack itself. In conjunction with German company Saueressig, Heidelberg also markets a cost-effective solution that integrates hidden images within a color separation that is read using a decoder.

The software-enabled camera phone has spawned several security-related  developments, such as scanning printed 2D multifunction QR codes. Examples include the Digitrack Mi6 family of covert or overt 2D codes with customized security features supplied by Complete Inspection Systems in Florida. Scanned with a smart phone, they direct manufacturers or distributors to a secure web portal to authenticate and receive encoded product information. Consumers can also obtain product information, or even videos, over their smart phones with the appropriate app.  

Ohio-based Sekuworks says its Duosecure system combines authentication, verification, and track/trace in a single label. The labels are printed either with flexo or an intaglio/flexo process that includes micro text, and also includes security holograms. Smart mobile phones with an 'app' that reads Quick Response (QR) encrypted matrix codes can provide hyperlinks with websites for unit-level verification and tracking. In New Zealand, Pakwork has developed labels with RFID tags manufactured by Microsoft. Smart phone users can scan labels to authenticate high-value goods, such as health or skin care products, via a dedicated web site. It also supports product and contact information. As an extension of consumer marketing techniques, such tagging applications would appear to have great potential.

Another approach to brand protection is to apply a forensic technique using covert DNA taggants, or solutions. They permit instant verification, usually after applying a testing fluid. An example is the SigNature DNA marker from Applied DNA Sciences in New York State. Uniquely derived from botanical DNAs, they can be included in any component of woven and printed labels, including top coatings, adhesives, and inks for secure, tamper-evident labels. Users can embed serial numbers or invisible 2D barcodes using machine-readable DNA encoded inks.

In many respects, these and other high-tech smart label applications take the age-old art of placing one specially-formulated coating on top of another to a high level of technical expertize. Work currently being undertaken with nano-barcodes and nano-taggants further stretches this concept. Incorporated into paper as nano-scale fibers, they can carry an electrical-magnetic or optical signature which is revealed by a special scanner to authenticate products and packs, or track and trace them. Several of the industry's more entrepreneurial roll label printers are actively developing special products with these and similar innovations, with some licensed to franchisees. An ability to offer smart and intelligent labels arguably provides the sort of business model that many medium-sized converters should be seeking, so avoiding being squeezed between the more agile smaller firms and the larger globalized converting groups. 

Pictured: Film-mounted RFID inlay 

This article was published in L&L issue 3, 2011


Barry Hunt is a former, staff writer, technical editor and contributing editor to Labels & Labeling.

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