In the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Energy asked the Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop a way to track nuclear materials. Scientists responded with a system of transponders placed in trucks that hauled toxic materials and readers secured to the gates of government facilities. More than 30 years later, innovators continue to develop new ways to use transponder technologies to drive down costs and improve the ability to track items throughout the supply chain.

Today, radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies are at the top of the list. The RFID market reached nearly $5 billion in 2006, and vendors have even more opportunities to tap into new markets, said Peter Harrop, chairman of U.K.-based research firm IDTechEx. Agriculture is one of these new markets.

Somark Innovations is developing chipless RFID technology for the agriculture market. Though Mark Pydynowski, the company's president, is tight-lipped when discussing the proprietary technology, Somark is testing a passive, chipless RFID ink at an undisclosed U.S. cattle ranch. The application device consists of a disposable ink cartridge and an array of micro-needles. It is used to apply the ink into the intradermal layer of cattle's skin — the same layer where a human tattoo resides. A hand-held reader pick up the data, which then translates into a unique ID number.

“The technology creates a synthetic biometric, or fake fingerprint, with RFID ink,” he said, adding that each application costs $1.

“That's expensive,” Harrop said, noting that RFID technologies can replace the 10 trillion barcodes printed every year only if a price point of 1¢ per application is reached.

Harrop further wonders whether the technology is truly viable because Somark is keeping the details of its solution top secret, such as the frequency at which it communicates and the materials used to develop it.

All of the secrecy is easy to explain, according to Pydynowski: The technology is still in the research and development stage. “We're waiting on the next milestone from an R&D perspective that would give us a better estimate when we will be launching,” he said

But Harrop also expressed doubts about widespread adoption for the solution, particularly given the marketplace chosen for its launch. The U.S. agriculture sector is not as receptive to RFID applications compared with European and other nations, he said, adding that even third-world countries are quicker to adopt RFID, such as when officials in Botswana demanded RFID tagging on cattle six years ago in order to track disease.

Nevertheless, Pydynowski believes endless applications exist for the RFID ink. For example, the technology may help the U.S. livestock industry mitigate export losses stemming from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, by identifying and tracking affected cattle. It also can be used to track meat as it moves beyond the slaughterhouse, where today traceability stops.

“From a food safety perspective, we would like be able to track the meat as it moves through the supply chain by putting an ink stamp onto a steak and being able to track that,” Pydynowski said.

However, cattle ranchers are more likely to stick to their current branding system to track cattle throughout the supply chain, Harrop said. But he acknowledges that this makes the U.S. vulnerable to a biological attack against its food stocks. Without the use of modern technology to trace food sources, law enforcement wouldn't have the tools to track the origin of the biological attack.

“In America when there have been outbreaks of mad cow disease, U.S. exports of beef have been banned and cost the country several billions of dollars,” he said. “And yet no one links that back to why don't we improve the traceability of food supplies.”

Somark is not the first company to dive into chipless RFID technologies. Motorola has been working since 2000 on passive RFID tags in the form of chipless printed electronics for item-level tracking applications, said Marc Chason, a director at Motorola's Plantation, Fla.-based research lab. At the heart of the system are transistor circuits printed on inexpensive substrates, such as paper or plastic, instead of the more expensive silicon.

“You'll never get down to the 1¢, 5¢ numbers,” he said about silicon chips. “The idea for printed electronics is [to offer] a low-cost alternative to silicon technology for a device that doesn't necessarily require high performance.”

A long-term goal is to print the electronic circuit at the same time the label is created in order to reduce manufacturing costs. But the company hasn't gotten there yet. “That's a future vision,” Chason said.

It may be Motorola's future vision, but another company already has developed a way to create retail tags embedded with RFID technology. Bill Nuffer, president of Deister Electronics, said his company has developed several passive RFID technologies. The first is a weaveable conductive thread that can be used in a shuttle or needle loom and later tracked through the apparel supply chain. The thread is 0.1 millimeters thick, meets EPC Class 1 Gen2 standards and can be deactivated at the point of sale. Specialty custom-label manufactures could use the RFID thread to sew labels, Nutter said. “It would look like any bobbin of thread that you saw on a weaving machine.”

Another technology developed by Deister to track clothing consists of an RFID “strap,” a chip that can be bonded to an antenna. An epoxy adheres the strap to the near-field, folded dipole UHF antenna to create a direct conductor-to-conductor connection, which occurs when the electrical insulation system is no longer present and conductors make direct contact, according to the company. Once fabricated, it then is sewn into a small pouch in any piece of fabric, pretty much wherever the clothing designer wants it to be placed. Deister is developing a special sewing machine accessory that will automatically take the strap, drop it into the fabric pouch and seal the seam.

Deister also is developing an RFID reader for item-level applications. It is a UHF-based system that is encased within a fabric glove, which has an antenna woven into it, Nutter said. Users wear the glove in a warehouse environment; as they remove or replace items on warehouse shelves, the data is automatically transferred in real-time to a centralized database using a Wi-Fi link.

However, as is typical in RFID applications, cost is an issue.

“It has to be fairly low cost, but the market for it is going to require a large volume — millions per year — to be significantly less than $1 a tag,” Nutter said.

Retailers deploying such technologies must be aware of consumer privacy issues, said Tom Karygiannis, senior researcher in the National Institute of Science and Technology's computer security division. He said it is important to evaluate these emerging technologies to determine whether RFID tags can be deactivated when consumers leave the store. In addition, informing consumers is crucial, especially if businesses use data captured at the point of sale for marketing or other purposes.

“As a retailer, you want to inform consumers that this tag exists on the apparel,” he said. “That would be your first step.”

But as new RFID technologies like these emerge, the human experience will be dramatically different, Chason said.

“If all our items have RFID tags on them 30 years from now, think about how life will change,” he said. “You can communicate with them. You'll be able to find things. Everything changes … your whole world.”

TAG APPLICATION Number of tags supplied in 2006 (in millions) Value of spending on tags (in millions of U.S. dollars)
Drugs 15 3.5
Other health care 10 5.1
Retail apparel 50 10
Consumer goods 10 2.5
Tires 0.1 0.1
Postal 0.5 0.3
Books 50 17.3
Manufacturing parts, tools 10 4
Archiving (documents/samples) 8 2.6
Military 10 200
Pallet/case 200 34
Smart cards/payment key fobs 350 770
Smart tickets/banknotes/secure docs 65 13
Air baggage 25 5
Conveyances/other, freight 10 10
Animals 70 140
Vehicles 2.5 23.8
People 0.5 9.5
Car clickers 46 46
Passport page 25 100
Other tag applications 65 87.1
Total 1022.6 1484
Source: IDTechEx