History of multiple article electronic identification system developed in South Africa

In January 1994 the world was surprised to discover that a South African development was likely to change the future retailing and logistic systems. Prior to this announcement, other RFID systems had been developed in South Africa, but none with the impact of this development.

Prior to November 1990, the South African Government Research laboratories of the CSIR in the Division of Microelectronics and Communications Technology, had been approached by a motor manufacture to find out if it was possible to have a very low cost RF transponder to be used for just-in-time manufacture, the restrictions being that it would need to withstand the heat of the paint shop while being very cheap. This led to the development of a transponder that repeatedly broadcast its identity and used a "backscatter modulation" method. Such a transponder was built using discrete components and extensive testing carried out to detect such a transponder passing at speed mounted on a car.

This concept was later modified to provide a design for detecting the identity of miners working deep in the South African goldmines. Here the rebroadcast was delayed by a random backoff timer based on the prionciple that when identifying a few tags in a zone at a time, all the tags would have some transmission time when they were not jammed by other tags. This principle is valid if there are only a limited number of sources in the beam at a time.

None of these concepts could handle many transponders at the same time, mainly because the tags all respond on a single frequency, many talk at the same time as they are free-running and do not have onboard receivers that are able to hear if other tags are talking at any instant.

Supertag® protocol was developed by accident by Mike Marsh. While attending a management strategy meeting in Pretoria at a place called "Aarbeidsaamheid" in November 1990, he suddenly realised how a simple protocol could be implimented that would allow any number of tags to be read. At that stage the development team was not working on this problem, but just by chance stumbled across the solution.

  • January 1991 the first patents filed.
  • Mike headed the Mining Systems Programme involved in developing electronic detonators and mine communication systems. He had a staff that were experts at taking concepts and making products from the ideas. Over the next three years a further three key patents were filed.
  • October 1992 Initial discussions with UK company about commercialising concept.
  • October 1993 Contract to commercialise concept signed with BTG(UK) .
  • January 1994 The electronic identification system appears to the world as a demonstration of a supermarket trolley being read in a supermarket in a couple of seconds without unpacking. Demonstration shown on 2000 TV stations and 5000 newspapers. The Demonstartion was recorded for TV at the Menlo Park Pick 'n Pay in Pretoria and in the laboratories of the Mining Systems Program
  • Over the next four months 1500 companies contact about the technology. Up to 3 technical teams visit per day to study the technology.
  • April 1994 Mike Marsh leaves the development group to start his own small engineering consulting company (RFID Technologies) after nearly 20 years of service. The former development team at CSIR that had four other major success like this identification system, broken up and merged with other programmes. Harry Booyens takes over as programme manager of Mining Systems.
  • May 1994 ICL announces that it has taken an option to a license
  • October 1994 Third license option has been signed
  • February 1995 Fourth license option signed with Seika, Oki, Miyake and Takaya
  • March 1995 Mining systems programme finally closed down and all staff either resign or are relocated.
  • July 1995 - Supersensor takes an option/licence
  • February 1996 - Gemplus take a licence option
  • September 1995 Division at CSIR renamed to Division of Communications and Information Networking Technology.
  • September 1996 Sixth option agreement signed with Oxley Systems.
  • November 1996 - Gemplus announce they are incorporating Supertag protocol into their new smart card systems as a fourth optional configuration and will launch it by November 1997
  • July 1997 - The 1997 Annual report of B TG reporting on the licensing state as at May 1997 report that:
    as at July 1995 agreements had been signed with ICL and a Japanese consortium including Seika and OKI;
    and since then to date - agreements signed with Gemplus(France), Oxley Systems(UK), Cheil Comtech (Korea), Supersensor (South Africa), a Japanese consortium, SamSys (Canada) and Boumatic (USA).
    Elsewhere they state "Three new agreements have been signed for the Supertag technology bringing the total number to seven worldwide; Boumatic in the USA, is developing an animal tagging system; Oxley Systems in the UK, is developing applications in the logistics and access control areas; and, Cheil Comtech, which is the largest distributor of Symbol barcodes in Korea, is targeting asset tracking management.
  • December 1997 - 1997 Interim report from BTG states that BISTAR was formerly Supersensor.
  • March 1998 - Trolley Scan, a company founded by Mike Marsh and Trevor Hodson patent and launch the Trolleyponder(TM) RFID system aimed at low cost tagging. Includes features allowing three axis scanning using only a single interrogation frequency. Trolleyponder is based on a completely new concept and new intellectual property further reducing the complexity of low cost RFID tags.
  • September 1998 - Trolley Scan announce 120 companies now members of the Trolleyponder(TM) Development Users Group and five companies ordered documents to investigate in depth the manufacture of high volumes of Trolleyponder tags.
  • September 1998 - Trolley Scan announce the beginning of the Retail Initiative whereby leading retail companies can start using low cost Trolleyponder tags.
  • March 1999 - Companies in USA, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Germany and the UK are in the process of commercialising the Trolley Scan Trolleyponder technology. Almost 900 companies are following developments via monthly newsletters.
  • April 1999 - Trolley Scan announce the invention of EcoTag(TM) which shatters the operating performance restrictions of RFID tags in the European environment, and provides reading zone widths of up to 5.4 when previous technological solutions were limited to tens of centimeters. The EcoTag development has minimal cost implication on the producer prices of transponders in the Trolleyponder stable.
  • People involved in developing the electronic identification system (Supertag)(1990-1994)

    Members of the TEAM that made RFID possible and gave the world a demonstration of a trolley

    Mining Systems Programme

    Mike Marsh
    Inventor, development team leader, programme manager and negotiator
    Andre Lenarcik
    Developer of RF systems initially for the vehicle project, and then for the trolley project. Designer of antenna systems, and the RF components of the transponder.
    Clinton van Zyl
    Designer of the microprocessor and receiver components for the reader. Involved in the initial testing of the vehicle system and later of the trolley system.(Currently in the UK)
    Andries van Schalkwyk
    Built the phase lock loop and receiver components and assembled many tags and the demo system.
    Martin Oosthuizen
    Built the microprocessor components of the receiver, many tags and assembled the demo system.
    Paul Mekisich
    Built the transmitters together with the notch filters for rejecting interference.
    Martin Walker
    Built the initial discrete component transponder. (Currently in Canada)
    Werner Bremer
    Modelled radiation patterns for inside metal container (Currently in Johannesburg)
    Trish Ritter
    Wrote the software used for the trolley demo till.
    Paw Paw Cabrita
    Built the initial wooden trolley system, and the mechanical components of the scanning system that was used in the Pick n Pay demo. (Currently in Johannesburg)
    Jack Marx
    Made the mechanical components of the receivers and power supplies of the vehicle and Supertag system.(Currently in Randburg)
    ... and about another five members of the programme

    IC Design Programme

    Hendrik van Eeden
    Converted the original discrete design to a low voltage MOS process in a foundry in Switzerland. Wrote a software simulator to show initial simulation regarding error rate. (Currently in Pretoria)
    Lourence Cronje
    Assisted in conversion of discrete design to first multichip implimentation.
    Roy Atkins
    Took over non-digital design aspects and preparation of specifications after key staff left.

    Microelectronic Applications Programme

    Mark Carson (Currently in Pretoria), Gideon Gouws ,Mario Marais
    Collectively developed a method of attaching integrated circuits to cheap antenna substrates in volume applications.

    CSIR Information Services

    Murray Dell
    Comprehensive mathematical model of the performance of a group of tags

    Supertag was registered as a trademark by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research

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