Taking stock of tagging technology

by David Pincott | posted on 06 August 2003

The means of identifying objects has come a long way. From the humble barcode to pet chips, printable electronics and a global consortium to tag anything that moves, this article explores what's behind that sense of identity.

Open a kitchen cupboard and, invariably, you'll come across a selection of barcodes - small panels of black and white stripes that represent a number that identifies the products whose packaging they're sitting on. Barcodes came about during the 1960s, driven by manufacturers' and retailers' needs to exercise control, save costs in supply chains, and literally, take stock of what they were selling.

Forty years on ...

Today, barcodes are still holding their own when it comes to a cheap way of identifying goods, but they're now considered a mature technology that, compared to new devices, is also pretty basic. A number of alternatives that use radio frequency identification (RFID) are already used on higher priced goods, or pallets of goods - a fact that has driven BT Exact, BT's research, technology and IT operations business to take stock of a whole range of up-and-coming tagging technology, and to become involved in their development.

In turn, BT Exact aims to determine on behalf of BT's customers how the forthcoming revolution in product identification will affect their businesses. BT Exact's disruptive technologies manager Ian Neild, explained: "We have been interested in the tagging field for many years now, with an emphasis on how tags will impact our customers' businesses and how tagging will affect our lives. We've put various demonstrations of the new technology together, taking a lead from the extensive work being carried out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab in Boston, USA, which is part-sponsored by BT."

Start-ups to supermarkets

BT has also recently joined the MIT's Auto-ID centre - a group of more than 100 companies, from small start ups to supermarket giants, working together to drive the use of RFID tagging in global commerce. The centre is backed by research from five of the world's leading research universities including the University of Cambridge in the UK. By harnessing RFID-based tagging technologies, it aims to create a so-called 'Internet of things' where anything and everything has its own sense of self, whereby it can be linked to an associated object or location, and at a given time.

Ian said: "At BT Exact, we've already developed various tagging applications that are the next stage on from the bar code. We've linked tags to multimedia and web-based actions, for example building a table that plays multimedia when a CD case is placed on top and delivers on-screen information from the web that's related to the tag. My group has also provided consulting expertise to BT Openworld on tagging technology and how it might be applied to broadband multimedia in the home.

"The need to develop new RFID technologies is vital for the retail industry: where barcodes fail, is by either not giving enough information or by working only in line of sight. By contrast, RFID tagging uses radio waves, so line of sight isn't as important an issue and the amount of data it can carry is much larger." Today, RFID tagging technology is already being used for identification chips implanted in cats and dogs, for tagging costly beer barrels and on higher value items like ski lift passes.

Too costly for crisps

Ian said: "It's easy to imagine how useful RFID tagging would become in medical situations, such as in hospitals, for drug or instrument control, but while production costs for tags and tag readers are falling, they're still too high for many uses. Older RFID style tags, such as those used in cattle, were made up of long lengths of copper wire wound onto chips, making them costly to produce. Newer tags are easier to make and package but still cost between 30 to 40 pence on average, so they're still to costly for mass use, such as on a packet of crisps - and this is where much of the effort at the Auto-ID centre is focused: on driving production costs of RFID tags down."

As things stand today, the UK does not have a radio frequency that allows tag reading over any distance beyond a metre, but the current high levels of interest among the retail sector in RFID tagging, plus the need for a globally agreed frequency for tags, suggests that a UK frequency will soon be out into place. As with most new technologies, RFID tags bring with them a number of opportunities for potentially disruptive technologies, too. One such area, in which BT Exact has been involved, is in examining how producing tags can be made cheaper - one possible answer is in 'printable' electronics.

Print your processor

Ian Neild explained: "Normally to make a silicon device, you need a purpose built multi-million pound foundry - containing clean rooms to package very expensive slithers of silicon into silicon memory and processors. But if you don't require the processing complexity of an Intel Pentium processor, printable electronics could prove the best option. Instead of loading an inkjet printer with colour ink, you use silicon oxides with conductive and non-conductive inks, and so 'print' your tagging components cost-effectively."

BT Exact is also looking ahead to explore the ways it might manage the masses of information generated by such a supply chain. Ian said: "When we have tags everywhere, we'll also need tag readers everywhere. Imagine all the information floating around for this correlating to just about any item anywhere in the supply chain. There will be a clear need to manage it effectively, such as via BT-hosted databases or data warehouses, where the data needs to be accessible and constantly updated to ensure the system runs smoothly.

"Today there are lots of trials going on around the world in the RFID field, and gradually the tags are moving ever closer to the customer which is why BT Exact is here from the outset to represent BT's customers' interests - ahead of what will be significant changes in the retail industry."

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