KU research looks to improve, revolutionize inventory tracking

Lawrence,KS (08-05-2005)

From University Relations
By Dan Lara

Radio frequency identification tags (RFID) are used throughout private industry and the federal government to track and manage products and inventory, and University of Kansas research will be used to improve the performance and possibly expand the usefulness of the tags in the future.

Since 2004, KU's RFID Alliance Laboratory has been conducting hundreds of performance and quality tests on various RFID tags. The tags, which are paper thin and measure only a few inches across, contain tiny computer chips and antennae that listen for radio signals and respond by transmitting their unique ID code. The tags are usually attached to cases or pallets used to ship products. As computers track those items through supply chains, the tags enable companies to control inventory and ensure products arrive at the right time and location. Organizations from Wal-Mart to the U.S. Defense Department use the tags.

The Alliance Lab was formed by a partnership between KU's Information and Telecommunications Technology Center; the RFID Journal, a media company based in Hauppauge, N.Y.; and Rush Tracking Systems, a private company that manages RFID systems, based in Lenexa. The Alliance Lab is located in Nichols Hall on KU's Lawrence campus.

The Alliance Lab provides researchers with the facilities and resources to produce a series of objective, scientific reports evaluating RFID technology, said Daniel Deavours, KU research assistant professor and director of the Alliance Lab.

"The industries and organizations that use the tags to track inventory need the unbiased research and evaluations so that they can make informed decisions about the tags' quality and effectiveness," Deavours said. "The manufacturers of the tags should find our evaluations critical in their efforts to improve their technology."

Two reports have been produced so far, Deavours said. The first report, released last year, evaluated a number of performance variables, including how far the tags could be placed from the "readers" (devices that receive the tags' radio signals) and still be able to communicate with them. The report also examined how the tags had to be physically positioned on products in order for the tags' radio signals to be picked up as they passed by the readers.

The second report, released last month, tested tag quality, Deavours said. The testing focused on nine models of tags and used more than 1,000 individual tags. The tags were tested for their "read rate," or how many times per second the reader could pick up the tags' radio signal as they passed by. Tags were tested in isolation and when other tags were placed nearby. Testing also focused on the tags' yield (what percentage of the tags tested would actually work) and the tags' variance (the difference in performance among tags of the same model).

The test results found tag quality to be highly inconsistent, not only from one model to the next but also from one tag to the next of the same model.

"These quality issues will be of interest to the manufacturers as well as those who use the tags," Deavours said.

The distant future of RFID technology could lead to the development of tags for each individual item sold to consumers, everything from a carton of milk to a bottle of pain reliever, Deavours said. The idea would be to cut down on counterfeiting problems -- an important issue when dealing with items such as pharmaceuticals -- or to increase consumer convenience. For instance, if a consumer bought a carton of milk at his local grocery store, the carton's RFID tag could be scanned by the consumer's refrigerator at home and warn him when the milk is about to expire.

For more information on the Alliance Lab or to purchase its reports, please visit its Web site at http://www.rfidalliancelab.org/index.html.

For more information, contact ITTC.

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