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New chip and tagging platform expected
to further accelerate item level tagging

04/04/11 | John R. Johnson | email

When Cynthia Dipietrantonio addressed the Item Level RFID Initiative during the National Retail Federation conference in January, the Jones Apparel COO noted how difficult it is to apply RFID tags to apparel destined for a limited amount of retailers.

That process is about to get much easier. RFID solutions provider Impinj has launched two components for implementing item-level RFID across retail markets and supply chains. Impinj's Monza 5 tag chip and STP source tagging platform are expected to enable widespread scaling of RFID retail inventory management solutions.

The new products were driven by the Item Level RFID Initiative unveiled in November by Walmart, Macys, Kohls and other major retailers. The STP source tagging platform, which is capable of encoding up to 1,750 tags per minute, will be available in May. The Monza 5 chip, optimized for single-use tag applications that demand high read reliability and low applied tag costs, is already in production.

"Our goal is to enable large scale deployments," says Scot Stelter, senior director of product marketing at Impinj. "We're starting to see large scale deployments and we want to make them economically feasible to implement. The big picture is that the massive adoption we've been waiting for is occurring."

In fact, Stelter sees RFID item level tagging progressing quickly from the apparel sector to include cosmetics, jewelry, tires and pharmaceuticals, especially in Asia, where item level tagging is booming in the pharma sector.

"I think Impinj is responding to the demand and the volume that we are seeing in the apparel sector," says Mike Liard, research director for auto-ID and smart cards at ABI Research. "But they were careful to classify this as an item level solution, so it could be applicable in non-retail apparel markets."

The massive adoption occurring in the marketplace has introduced an unanticipated challenge. Most enterprises have been focusing on issues like reading tags, optimizing new data collected from RFID, and defining the business case for RFID, which has been proven for retailers over the last 12 months. However, "the looming challenge people haven't been prepared for is how are they going to encode all these tags and attach them to garments and other items that need to be tagged in a cost effective and high quality manner," says Stelter. "Ultimately what people are looking for is very low applied tag costs. That's the challenge."

In a nutshell, the new technologies unveiled by Impinj will enable retailers to push tagging for apparel and other goods further down the value chain to the source of manufacture. Some industry analysts believe that the market for the two new products won't fully develop for six to nine months, when more retailers get into the item level game. "When you look at today's retail supply chain, tagging can happen at various different points," says Liard. "One of the key goals is to drive it as close to the source as possible so you can have that true supply chain visibility where all players in the value chain can take advantage of the information being collected."

Many RFID inlay manufacturers, including Avery Dennison, Invengo, LSIS, and UPM Raflatac are already developing inlays with the Monza 5 chips. And the STP platform allows suppliers to implement either bulk encoding or in-line encoding solutions.

A bulk encoding system, which writes data to potentially hundreds of tags en masse, generally with the tags attached to items in cases, gives brand owners new flexibility in how and where they manage RFID data. An inline encoding system, which writes data to tags individually, at high speed, before the tags' application to products, mirrors existing print-oriented processes for handling variable product data. STP allows users to implement either method of encoding or a hybrid approach.

"When you are scaling the adoption of a technology like RFID, where it represents a limited percentage of your throughput, you can go off to the side and run a different process or go slow with a room of printer encoders," says Stelter. "But as the industry starts to go mainstream, that approach doesn't work any more. RFID has to go into that main line process. This product release is about making that leap. It's about going from an off to the side, special handling 'we'll do what it takes to get a pilot done approach' to how do we get to mainstream without limiting your overall operations."

The Impinj solution also allows for seamless serial number management, which previously could be a challenging endeavor to incorporate into existing business practices.

At the NRF show in January, Dipietrantonio talked about how difficult it is to tag a small percentage of an apparel order for a specific retailer. Aside from operating 750 retail stores, Jones Apparel is also a manufacturer, selling its goods to retailers like Macys. So Dipietrantonio can speak first hand when it comes to the critical mass needed for tagging apparel at the source.

Stelter says that's the true intent of the Impinj solution.

"If a retailer comes to you with a request to tag a certain product, and that retailer only represents 10 percent of that product and you send 90 percent to other retailers, you have a tough choice," he says. "You can either do special handling in your DC and tag in your DC just for that retailer, or you can just tag everything at the source. But you don't have the option to tag just 10 percent at the source, because at the source you are not distinguishing product from one retailer to another. That's one of the barriers the whole industry is trying to get over. What this set of technologies does is lower the threshold where it make sense to embrace wholesale tagging."

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