Low cost RFID scanning of multiple articles

March 1998 saw the announcement of a new generation of Radio Frequency Identification technology called Trolleyponder®.("A barcode replacement technology")

This development marked the onslaught by the staff of RFID Technologies on the problem of producing extreme volumes of transponders that would be so versatile and so cheap that it would be cost effective to use it as a barcode replacement technology for the ultimate application, namely the scanning of goods in a Supermarket trolley.
To tackle such a project could not be done by any one company alone, and so RFID Technologies have via their subsidiary, Trolley Scan (Pty) Ltd, developed an innovative way for involving many companies with a common goal. As at December 1998, more than 160 companies were part of the Trolleyponder Development User Group and companies in USA,New Zealand,Japan and Korea were planning industrialising of the technology. In September 1998 Trolley Scan launched its "Retail Initiative" to target the adoption of RFID by the retail sector while in December 1998 at the University of New South Wales in Australia an Industrial design student showed the "Branders" concept of using such technology for a self service checkout in a retail environment.

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Trolleyponder was not a flash in the pan but was a predictable goal as an RFID Technologies' staff member had been responsible for similar major breakthrough 7 years earlier.
Further since its formation in 1994 as a private company, RFID Technologies had focussed on bringing the benefits of RFID to the man in the street, firstly by means of their industry aclaimed Transponder News, a WWW newspaper on RFID developments in general and providing over 18000 pages of information per month to readers worldwide, and secondly via their specialised consulting services that advanced the state of the world's knowledge.

In January 1994, a demonstration of a supermarket trolley containing 35 items and being scanned in a couple of seconds was shown around the world on television. This system was based on a patent entitled "Electronic Identification System " claiming priority from 1991. This system had been developed in a South African government research laboratory by the Mining Systems programme. The inventor of the system, and the person who lead the development and commercialisation up to the demonstration was Mike Marsh (a founder of RFID Technologies)

This event was very significant in the future of RFID techniques, as it shattered some previously thought insurmountable obstacles, and allowed a vision of the mass application of RFID systems to become closer to realisation.

The demonstration showed that:

  • It would be possible to make very cheap RF transponders. The transponders could consist of simply a mass produced integrated circuit attached to a printed antenna.
  • Despite being a relatively simple transponder, reading ranges of 4 meters were practical.
  • A previous block to the delivery of cheap medium range transponders was overcome, in that multiple tags could be read at the same time. This feature had stumped development teams for the past 20 years and became one of the most significant achievements of the development. The protocol enabling multiple articles to be read at the same time brought about additional features in that the protocol could handle multiple articles at the same time even if they had the same identity - hence the term electronic counting (e.g. 12 boxes of 1kg soap powder)
  • The protocol proved to be very robust, with low error rates (1 in 10000) and even allowed Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) features to be included.
  • Scanning rates averaging 20 items a second and 100's of items at any one time.

  • This technology was patented and was marketed by the South African Govenment under their trademark Supertag

    Images from Press launch

    Despite many companies(a few thousand) realising the potential of such a product and contacting the developers, a few significant events happened that caused the momentum of the project to drop, resulting in the technology still not being commercially available 60 months after demonstration despite seven licensees announcing their involvement.

    Not least amoung these were:

  • The breakup of the development team by the management of the S.A. Government laboratory resulting in the majority of the team members leaving the laboratory or the project.
  • The critical stage at which the breakup occured, while still a concept demonstrator and not yet a documented system for transfer to industry.
  • This demonstration showed the potential for such technology and that the vision could be realised.

    In 1994 Mike Marsh had left the employ of the South African government and had started with Trevor Hodson the company RFID Technologies CC to assist manufacturers with technology transfer of the scanning technology.

    In 1995 they started the company Trolley Scan (Pty) Ltd with the long term goal of improving their earlier inventions and further reducing the manufacturing costs associated with electronic scanning of trolleys.
    In 1998 Trolley Scan filed the Trolleyponder® patents, an entirely new protocol that results in simpler, smaller and therefore cheaper transponder systems than what was previously available. Trolley Scan have offered this technology to all companies world wide who wish to become involved in RFID transponders, and have also set up a Trolleyponder Development Group where licensees, component suppliers and users can interact to shorten the delivery times. Trolleyponder information can be found at http://trolleyscan.com.

    In the next few years, market forces will ensure that it reaches the market place. With the food sector needing volumes in the order of ten to the power of thirteen per annum, the technology will have a major impact on the semiconductor, assembly and logistics industry.

    Further reading
    For those interested in the current developments in the RFID industry, have a look at the technology journal entitled
    Transponder News, an electronic newspaper on developments in radio identification systems with a database of patents, developers and activities in the RFID Industry

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