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Focus: RFID and Automated Identification and Data Collection (AIDC)

Feature Article from Our RFID and AIDC Subject Area - See All


From SCDigest's OnTarget e-Magazine

- Dec. 3, 2014 -


RFID and AIDC News: Will Wide Area RFID Readers Change the Game in RFID Systems?


New Reader from Impinj Shows Where this Technology Is Headed; Real Time Locator Systems with Passive Tags


SCDigest Editorial Staff

In retail stores, hospitals, distribution centers, and beyond, will the ability to read passive tags across a reasonably large swath of real estate with a single reader be a game changer in RFID deployment?

So called wide area readers or wide area monitoring systems involve readers and antennas packaged in a housing about the size of a pizza box, mounted on a ceiling and capable of continuously reading all tags across some chunk of retail or distribution space. Combined with other such readers, and entire facility can be covered with real-time monitoring.

SCDigest Says:


Wide area monitoring technology could change that dynamic, and perhaps someday allow a network of readers on a distribution center ceiling that is capable of continuously reading RFID tags on each carton in the facility.

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An example is the xArray system from Impinj, which the company said this week is now in full production after previously been announced as a forthcoming product.

Impinj says a single xArray gateway can visualize up to 1500 square feet (139 square meters) of floor space. By using multiple xArrays, a company can cover a zone of any size and shape.

"The xArray gateway will forever alter inventory visibility by replacing infrequent, manual inventory taking using handheld RFID readers or barcode scanners with always-on, real-time automated inventory," the company says. "The advent of fixed-infrastructure inventory solutions based on xArray gateways will relieve employees from the drudgery of inventory taking, dramatically improve inventory visibility, and provide heretofore unavailable information such as the real-time location of each individual item within a facility."

The largest initial impact is likely to be in soft goods retail, where item-level tagging systems have gained much momentum, but which have generally relied on portal readers positioned at the entrance of the store from the back room, supplemented by store associates taking physical inventory using handheld RFID readers.

While such a process is much faster and more accurate than scanning individual bar codes on each item, it does still require store labor, and generally doesn't pick up that say a given size of an apparel items has been moved by a shopper from one rack to the next until the next manual read process is performed.

With wide area monitoring, all those reads happen all the time, automatically, providing a continuous, real-time picture of what inventory is where.

That is exactly the path that specialty retailer American Apparel - one of the most aggressive retail adopters of RFID technology - is taking after already beginning its roll-out of RFID systems in store.

It was announced in August of 2013 that the company was switching to use of one of these wide area monitoring systems, capable of reading passive EPC tags on all items in a store, all the time. The system would be able to place a given item within a specific zone on the floor, with tracking zones as small as 4 feet by 4 feet. The system would not only be able to identify at that level of precision where an item is in a store, but potentially also trigger a replenishment from the back room if a given style-size was not found on the store floor.

(RFID and AIDC Story Continued Below)




Impinj says its new system will be able to track the locations of tagged items or people within about 1.5 meters (4.9 feet).

The advantages for retailers adopting item-level RFID are clear. But wide area reading technology - also provided by companies such as RF Controls and Mojix, according to Tom O'Boyle, director of RFID Systems for Bar Coding Inc. - could dramatically change the dynamics in distribution and manufacturing as well.

So-called real-time locator systems (RTLS) have been reasonably popular in manufacturing and distribution, but required expensive "active" RFID tags that contain their own power source to broadcast a signal. That meant they could really only be deployed on re-usable assets, such as pallets that never leave the building, fork trucks, re-usable totes, etc.

Wide area monitoring technology could change that dynamic, and perhaps someday allow a network of readers on a distribution center ceiling that is capable of continuously reading RFID tags on each carton in the facility. Such a technology would provide near or actual 100% inventory accuracy, and eliminate not only the need for physical inventories, but even cycle counts, just as it is doing on retail now.

It does not appear current wide area readers are really ready for such a task yet. The new Impinj product, for example, is said to be capable of creates a 40-foot diameter read field, when installed at a height of 15 feet. Within that circular read zone, there are eight sectors, which are each subdivided into six more read zones.

Most DCS have ceilings much higher than that, and it is not clear if currently these wide area readers would really work at all from such heights. However, there are many applications in tracking healthcare assets in hospitals and maybe even manufacturing operations that have much lowering ceilings, for which wide area readers could be very feasible. But the technology will advance.

Impinj's xArray reader will carry a list price of $3300, and be available primarily from the company's network of resellers.

In retail currently and maybe DCs down the road, use of these wide area RFID readers could really revolutionize tracking processes.

They will also significantly impact the way we think about RFID readers generally, says Barcoding Inc.'s O'Boyle.
"The ceiling tile sized reader/antennas will change the way we look at readers," he notes. "Five years from now, you may never see a discrete antenna. Just these reader/antenna combinations with X-Y coordinate capabilities."

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