NZ startup plans low-silicon RFID tags

Auckland start-up venture Sandtracker claims to have cracked the US$0.05-per-tag barrier for RFID with a radically different technology which "doesn't need silicon in quite the same way other tags do".

One of Sandtracker's backers, Jan Hilder of financial services software firm Tacit Group, says the breakthrough stems from a "laterally different" idea from other RFID implementations.

"The competition has concentrated on getting better and better at pursuing the same path. We've taken a completely different path." She says the simpler tags, containing only a number identifying a line of goods, can already be made for less than NZ$0.10 (US$0.06) and this could be reduced further by economies of mass-production. She acknowledges, however, that the more sophisticated kinds of tag, such as tags enabling variable information to be written to them and those enclosed in ceramic material to survive harsh environments, will cost more.

Sandtracker has been running commercial trials since early this year and claims five companies are trialling various forms of its tags. Hilder won't reveal the identity of the partners, but says applications range from courier packs to meat packaging and distribution, coin bags and large reels of paper.

All involved companies are keen to begin using RFID if the trials check out, she says.

The courier-pack application proposes RFID chips embedded in the envelope or box as supplied by the courier company. These need to be read rapidly and in bulk -- up to 4,000 packs at a time as they travel via a conveyor belt -- and to be read equally well regardless of the position and orientation of the tag with respect to the reader.

The coin-bag application is a testing one because metal can interfere with a radio signal. Meat needs to have a rewritable tag so its progress from animal to final buyer can be recorded in case of recall due to disease, faulty processing or introduction of impurities. The tags used here must also stand the low temperature of a freezer and the high temperature of shrink-wrap sealing, Hilder says.

RFID labelling of large reels of paper tests reading at a distance through an obstructive medium -- a property which is also desirable for applications where scanners at roadside or trackside record goods in transit.

What is recorded here is the quality and type of paper. This prevents the wrong kind being mistakenly mounted on printing equipment or, worse, mistakenly thrown away.

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