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EPCglobal's view

What you should know about RFID and packaging: An interview with Sue Hutchinson, EPCglobal North America's director of industry adoption, at the EPC Connection event in early October.

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Packaging Insights: Please bring our readers up to speed on packaging-related RFID trends and developments.

Hutchinson: There is a lot going on in the EPCglobal community. First and foremost, we're seeing a sea change going from the pilot stage of implementation into “real world” implementation. Consumer packaged goods manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies ask, "How do I operationalize the use of these technologies in my industry, in my company?"

And packaging is one of the first things these companies think about.

We are moving past the point where we’re just slapping a tag on the side of a box and hoping that it works. We need to get more creative in incorporating these technologies into the way we do packaging.

For example, relating to the challenges of UHF in a liquid and metal environment, one of the things that Proctor & Gamble has done is to change the package design for its Gillette Fusion razors so that the packaging itself could become more RF-friendly. It did this by isolating the metallic materials and adding more air gaps in different locations.

We're going to start to see that as a trend as more RFID-enabled products make their way into the supply chain. We're going to see additional explorations, particularly from the CPG and pharmaceutical companies, of creative things they can do to incorporate RFID directly into their packaging.

I think it will also be true for integration within corrugates or case-level applications—we’re getting to the volumes where case-level RFID starts to make sense. That will also be true at the item level, particularly for pharmaceuticals.

PI: What resources are available at EPCglobal?

Hutchinson: We have some tremendous resources available at EPCglobal, not only through our staff, but also through our Web site. All of the standards that EPCglobal has ratified are publicly available. If you want to know what is going on, or want to learn a little bit more about a particular standard, a great way to learn is to download it. We also maintain a North America knowledge base of around 1,000 documents, and the majority of those are available for anyone who wants to download them.

PI: What do you see as the biggest challenges heading into 2008?

Hutchinson: The challenges fall in a couple of directions. First and foremost is scale. When does it start to make sense to incorporate these processes as a main way of doing business, rather than just tagging a few stock-keeping units? Surprisingly, that tipping point is relatively low for some large companies. The number that I’ve heard recently is less than 40% of the SKUs, which makes it very feasible for RFID to become part of the regular manufacturing process.

Challenge number two, while the Gen 2 technology has really improved the writability and readability of tags, we still have some challenges in some very specific areas, particularly around liquids and metal. We continue to work as a community, including the end users, the packaging folks, and the solution providers, to find more and creative ways to overcome those challenges.

PI: The advancement from Gen 1 to Gen 2 RFID has been pretty dramatic, but what's next?

Hutchinson: Gen 2 was designed to be an extensible platform. Within the next six months, we will see some enhancements and extensions to the UHF Gen 2 protocol. For certain applications, we’re also looking at a high-frequency [HF] protocol that is consistent with UHF, so that it gives more options to users who want to mix those two technologies in their enterprise, but still wanted to be consistent in the way they receive data, the kind of data they receive, and how they use it. For us, it’s all about standardizing and providing users with as many enablers as they’re going to need.

PI: What else can you point to for packagers?

Hutchinson: We are starting to work in a more organized way with the packaging community in that we are pulling together an interest group within EPCglobal specifically around packaging. Having the packaging suppliers working directly with the end-user companies and our very sharp technical people will open up some opportunities for us to share requirements and develop creative packaging solutions to enable these technologies to grow faster.

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