If you build it... An extensive press retrofit lets Starport Technologies move into RFID-label converting.


From Converting Magazine
By Barb Axelson

"My family grew up in the label business," says Jeff Nedblake, principal and managing partner of label converter Starport Technologies LLC in Kansas City, MO. "My grandmother started the business in 1933, and it was operated by the family until the sale of Package Service Co. to York Label in October 2007. Before the sale, the RFID (radio frequency identification) production was spun off into a separate division in March 2007. This division became Starport Technologies LLC."

Starport, working with the Information & Telecommunication Technology Center (ITTC) at the University of Kansas, has been granted the right to manufacture and market RFID tags using patented RFID technology developed at the university.

Left: On the Tamarack Products RFID-applicator section of the Nilpeter press, retrofits include a Fife offset-pivot web guide (Symat 25, Polaris control and SE-31 ultrasonic sensor).

"We've negotiated a long-term, exclusive license allowing for Starport Technologies to use the University of Kansas' technology for the production of numerous tag designs into consumable formats for metal and plastic liquid-filled containers," Nedblake explains. "The KU tag is another important tool in our expanding range of RFID solutions. ITTC researchers found an innovative solution to address the metal/liquid problem, which we commonly hear from customers. [The high dielectrics of liquid and conductivity of metal can create malfunctions for the RFID label/reader relationship]. This technology will give our customers a variety of terrific new tools to manage their assets."

Starport makes two types of RFID tags--Portunus and Adamas--which are said to work on metal. Portunus is 2 x 4 in., made of polycarbonate to withstand rugged environments. Adamas is made of high-density polyethylene and measures 2-1/2 x 5 in. They both feature 0.06-in. copper backing and adhesive tags, with inlays in the label. The asset-tracking tags are used in machines, medical equipment, laptops, and equipment for the US Department of Defense--to name a few applications. Nedblake says, "Our tags are not so much a product as a system."

According to Nedblake: "A lot of customers we deal with are in their first steps, doing betas or pilots. All of our pilots have been successful. There's a range of those who are testing; the numbers will come. The tags can be read from 25 to 30 ft and are the highest performing tags in the market."

So how has this fairly new company, composed of five people at present and operating in a 10,000-sq-ft facility, come to this rather impressive point? Retrofitting played a large part in revving up an existing Nilpeter F3000 printing press to produce the meticulously aligned RFID labels, which involve multiple layers of expensive material laminated together to form a single piece.

Larry Johnson, Starport vp of manufacturing and R&D, researched the options and worked with John Dignam and John Migliazzo of J&J Converting Machinery in nearby Grandview, MO. The two Johns, both of whom are mechanical engineers, had worked together before launching their six-year-old company, which specializes in used and rebuilt label presses, equipment brokerage and rebuilding, press service, machinery moving and installations.

Although J&J often starts with used machinery, in the course of the rebuild, they upgrade a machine's productivity by adding components such as tension controls, UV dryers, and AC motors and drives. In 2004, a controls engineer joined their team, and the use of servo-driven motors and PLCs further expanded the capabilities of the supplier's rebuilds.
A range of components

Together with Johnson, J&J spent four to five weeks on the project, including design, engineering, ordering components, and building an additional unwind and frame. Actual work on the press totaled two or three days in-plant at Starport's facility. In total, Starport needed an unwind, web guide and tension controls (supplied by MAGPOWR and Fife) and a core holder (Tidland) with five edge guides (Fife). See sidebar.

According to J&J's Migliazzo, "We gave Starport a new capability. Even a brand new machine would have had to be customized for them. They saved a sizeable amount of money." Johnson estimates that new equipment would have cost between $400,000 and $500,000, but the retrofit was less than 10 percent of the cost.

Starport makes other RFID labels as well, including basic supply-chain tags ("slap-and-ship") and is coming out with a new foam label this summer, priced under a dollar, and tested with KU. Neblake says, "It's not as rugged, but it's more flexible, made of 1/8-in. foam, with a gap between the metal and the RFID inlay."

It looks as if revamping older equipment can also help revamp an entire business.

For more information, contact ITTC.

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The Information and Telecommunication Technology Center at the University of Kansas has developed several assistance policies that enhance interactions between the Center and local, Kansas, or national companies. 

ITTC assistance includes initial free consulting (normally one to five hours). If additional support is needed, ITTC will offer one of the following approaches: 

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