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GE and Avery Dennison Developing Passive RFID Sensor Tags

The solution—signaling Avery Dennison's intention to provide RFID tags with greater functionality—will allow the detection of events such as counterfeit pharmaceutical products or spoiled produce in the supply chain.

Jan. 21, 2010—General Electric's Technology Ventures division is partnering with Avery Dennison to provide a high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz RFID sensor tag solution that would enable users to detect gases or toxic compounds and transmit that information to an RFID interrogator. The tag would be the same size as conventional HF tags—large or small, based on required read range (the sensors do not significantly increase the tag's size)—and would attach to items, or to cartons of products in the supply chain, via an adhesive.
The solution is the result of approximately two years of cooperative work (building and testing sensor tag systems) using Avery Dennison's RFID technology and GE's sensor technology. Avery Dennison will take responsibility for marketing the product, and the two companies are currently in discussions with GE customers that might trial the system in a real-world setting. William Kernick, GE's VP of technology ventures, says his company hopes to have trials underway within the next 18 months with a food or pharmaceutical company, and to make the sensor tag technology commercially available in about 18 months to two years.
The solution is the culmination of GE's development of sensor technology and increasing proliferation of RFID tags. More than two years ago, GE Global Research began working on an RFID-based sensor. In October 2008, the firm announced that it had developed a passive 13.56 MHz RFID tag compliant with the ISO 14443 and ISO 15693 standards, with an antenna capable of functioning as sensors (see GE Develops Passive Tag That Functions as Multiple Sensors). 
"GE developed the system to enable manufacture of the sensor tags to use a standard roll-to-roll process," says Jack Farrell, Avery Dennison RFID's VP and general manager. "This is critical because it offers the most efficient and highest-quality process for RFID applications. This is the process that Avery Dennison currently utilizes at our RFID manufacturing sites." 
Avery Dennison, which has worked with GE to develop that technology throughout the past two years, has seen sensor data as a logical inclusion in the increasingly ubiquitous RFID tags used in supply chains. 
"We believe item-level tagging will become commonplace, and with all those RFID tags, it's just logical to ask the tags to do more [than transmit an ID]," says Dave Edwards, Avery Dennison's VP of innovation. Most item-level tags being deployed by retailers employ EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency(UHF) technology rather than HF, so, consequently, Edwards expects that the two companies will also develop a UHF version of their sensor tag in the coming years.
The partners hope to see the sensor tags used to detect gases and toxic compounds in a variety of use cases. A sensor tag could be placed within a carton of produce, for example, and if a piece of fruit or a vegetable were to begin rotting, the resulting methane gas would be detected by the sensor, and that gas' presence would then be transmitted back to an interrogator as the carton passed through the supply chain. In another use case, the tag could be attached to a container of a pharmaceutical product, and be designed to detect the presence of a specific compound that should be found in that product. If that compound were not present, the tag's sensor would detect that fact and transmit the compound's absence to an interrogator, thereby indicating that the product may be counterfeit. 

The system would feature Avery Dennison tags with built-in GE sensor technology, amounting to a special film laminated to the tag's antenna. For each use case, the tags could be custom-made with the appropriate sensors. When a specific compound or gas is detected, the film on the antenna slightly modifies the transmission frequency, and the interrogator would detect that frequency change. The system would also include interrogators to capture sensor data, as well as back-end software to interpret that information.
The partners have yet to determine which reader manufacturers they will work with, though they expect to utilize HF readers that would be modified with software—developed by GE and the reader manufacturers—that could interpret the tag's modification in RF transmission when the sensors detect the presence or absence of a particular gas or compound. 

According to Farrell, a UHF version of the sensor tag may be available within the next two years. In addition, the partners intend to provide battery-powered RFID sensor tags. The film that serves as a sensor, Kernick says, could also be printed on the tag, rather than laminated. 
For Avery Dennison, this announcement signifies a shift beyond simple generic passive RFID tags, to those offering greater functionality. "This is definitely a significant announcement for Avery Dennison," Edwards states. "As RFID adoption continues to broaden, and infrastructure is created around communication to and from our smart labels and tags, Avery Dennison's ability to further enhance functionality will drive further value for our customers. Ultimately, we imagine a world in which the security, authenticity and efficacy of every item is known and verified throughout the supply chain, with the use of Avery Dennison's RFID technology. This is just another step toward our vision of making the world more intelligent." 

Although Edwards and Kernick could not indicate the cost of the solution, both expect that the system—which will initially be custom-designed for each application—will be inexpensive. "It will deliver value," Edwards says. "To get broad deployment, it must create value."




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