Encoding Near Field Communication (NFC) RFID tags can be a time-consuming task, especially for commercial printers and other companies that do not typically sell NFC-enabled products in large volumes. Such businesses often send their tags or labels to NFC service providers, such as GoToTags, which will encode the tags for a vendor prior to shipping them to its customers. Now, GoToTags is marketing a solution consisting of its own encoding software, known as NFC Encoder, and a reel-to-reel RFID tag encoder that makes the process easier and less expensive for both small and large users, as well as for NFC tag providers. The company claims the reel-to-reel solution can encode tags at a rate of up five per second.
GoToTags initially developed the software, and then the reader, for its own purposes over the course of the past two years, according to Craig Tadlock, the CEO of Wireless Sensor Technologies, GoToTags’ Seattle-based parent company. GoToTags encodes NFC tags in quantities ranging from as few as five tags to orders numbering in the millions. While ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags can be encoded rather quickly, NFC tags take much longer to encode since the tag needs to be very close to the printer antenna and very precisely oriented on a roll, and since only about two tags can be within read range of the device at any given time to be properly encoded. In some cases, a user might purchase an RFID printer-encoder to accomplish this task, while others might prefer to employ their own NFC-enabled mobile phones. But that process can take a while, Tadlock says, adding that GoToTags was able to encode approximately 1,000 tags within only two hours using an Android NFC-enabled phone.
To make encoding faster, GoToTags created its own software solution that can enable the encoding of tags with a standard NFC RFID encoder-printer when the device reads as many as four tags simultaneously—something other encoding software packages typically cannot do. The company then determined that if its clients (commercial printers, for example, or manufacturers of such products as wristbands) could use the same software, they could accomplish the encoding onsite and then ship the products directly to their customers. GoToTags made the software available from its cloud-based server, and its clients could be billed for using the software rather than having to buy it outright. In that way, the company explains, if only a small quantity of tags were encoded, the customers would be billed accordingly, amounting to a charge of only $5 or $13, for instance.
GoToTags found that when it needed to fulfill large orders for encoded NFC tags, it required even greater speed. Its engineers thus developed a reel-to-reel encoder, and determined that it could meet large orders even more quickly. For example, Tadlock says, a single reel-to-reel device could encode about 10,000 tags in around 35 minutes, including the time that personnel spent setting up the rolls. He speculates that the encoder might be capable of completing the task even faster than that, though he prefers not to push it. “If we reach a high enough speed,” he explains, “there’s a concern that we could break the inlay.” On the other hand, the more data that needs to be written, the more the time required for encoding will increase.
One feature enabling the device to move quickly is a design allowing the encoder to automate the reel speed so that tags move at a constant rate across the reader antenna. With a standard encoder, Tadlock explains, tag speed varies as the roll diameter changes, which limits how fast encoding can take place. To resolve this problem, GoToTags built a special motor that makes the tags move at a constant speed, no matter the roll’s width.
In addition, Tadlock contends, the more stable and consistent the tag’s RF field is, the faster the encoding. For example, he says, when manually encoding tags, the human hand cannot reliably create a stable RF field pattern. Reel-to-reel systems are designed to create a stable RF field for the tags, and can thus encode at faster speeds.
GoToTag’s encoder also uses an ultrasonic sensor to detect each tag as it is being encoded, and to count the tags in order to identify a “bad” NFC tag unable to be encoded. If the encoder identifies a bad tag, the NFC Encoder software will halt the process and audibly alert the user. This function is unavailable in the current software, but is expected to be released during the next few weeks.
This week, GoToTags is commercializing the solution not just for its own clients, but for any companies that need to encode NFC tags in large or small quantities. The firm is offering two versions of the reel-to-reel encoder. One employs an NXP Semiconductors Pagoda reader with a large antenna designed for reading tags that cannot be precisely placed on a roll or larger inlays. The other version has a built-in Advanced Card Systems (ACS) reader intended to provide a small RF reading field for smaller inlays, or for very precisely placed tags. To operate the encoder, a user must plug it into a Microsoft Windows-based computer via a USB cable; drivers are automatically downloaded via the Windows Update function.
GoToTags will modify its solution based on the needs of a specific customer. “You have to be flexible,” Tadlock states. “Every customer has a unique requirement.” The solution, he adds, is the result of “the hard lessons we’ve learned. We’ve done a lot of encoding projects.”
The encoder, which can be purchased at Wireless Sensor Technologies’ BuyNFCTags.Com online store, typically costs $10,000, while the NFC Encoder software can be downloaded for free, with a monthly fee that varies depending on the quantity of tags encoded. Individuals can use the software to encode each tag, and that data is then managed by GoToTags, which bills a user’s credit card accordingly. Software use is priced at approximately two cents per tag, Tadlock reports, noting that the cost of having a service provider perform the encoding is typically about 5 cents per tag.
In addition to marketing its reel-to-reel RFID tag encoder and NFC Encoder software, Wireless Sensor Technologies, through BuyNFCTags.Com, sells software development kits, NFC readers, Smartrac RFID NFC tags, and a variety of NFC-tagged products, such as mouse pads, refrigerator magnets and key chains. The company also provides NFC-enabled Samsung Galaxy Nexus phones on a rental basis. These phones support only Wi-Fi functionality, and are intended for use as NFC RFID readers (the handsets do not have cellular service, and thus cannot be used to place phone calls or send and receive text messages). Additionally, the company provides custom NFC products and NFC tag printing.