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Article
Big Changes at Omni-ID

Known for their ruggedized and high performance RFID tags, Omni-ID recently announced a new product line based on visual tags and a solution for tracking assets in cyclic processes. This marks a major step for Omni-ID into a new solution space.


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Omni-ID has made a name for itself over the years as a provider of high performance UHF1 RFID tags that function well on challenging materials (e.g. metal, liquids—they invented and hold patents for on-metal tags) in harsh environments (e.g. manufacturing plants, oil & gas fields, etc.). Omni-ID announced a bold new direction and product line in a press conference held on Wednesday 3/28/12 at MIT’s annual ‘Auto-ID & Sensing Expo’ in Cambridge, MA. Omni-ID has merged with Dynamic e-Horizons, a firm that designs and builds e-paper displays, combined with low-energy wireless networks, tracking algorithms, and a software platform. Omni-ID has integrated these new technologies with its own UHF RFID tags to create ‘visual tagging’ systems.

Visual Tagging

The new devices combine an ‘e-paper’ type display with a battery-powered active UHF tag. These devices can incorporate Zenithal Bi-stable Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) technology or alternatively electrophoretic displays, enabling long battery life because they do not consume power while displaying.2 The bi-stable LCD display tag has about a 6-7 year battery life, according to Omni-ID. 

Omni-ID offers four different sized visual tags today, with diagonal display dimensions of 6”, 4”, 3”, and 2”. A low-end visual tag will be in the $20+ range in high volumes. Omni-ID is also working on a battery-less passive visual tag which will harvest RF energy through its antenna and store that energy in an onboard capacitor. That will be about half the cost of the active tag and is expected to be available in the second half of 2012. Because it has a capacitor to store energy, the RFID can operate like a Battery Assisted Passive (BAP) tag, which will have better range than a purely passive tag (but not as long as the active tag).

Omni-ID also develops the networking and software pieces, including a cloud-based server that connects to all the visual tags. This software manages, commissions, and updates the tags and has a web-services interface that can provide real-time integration to enterprise systems. For example, orders could flow in from an order management system and be used to drive the process and populate the tags and displays.

Targeted at Asset Tracking in Cyclic Processes

Omni-ID aims to improve ‘cyclic processes’ where barcodes are often used today to drive the process. A cyclic process is one with defined steps that repeat over and over. Often cyclic processes use Returnable Transit Items (RTI)—such as pallets, crates, totes, roll cages, racks, kegs, cylinders, and so forth—to carry raw materials, parts, assemblies, or finished goods within a manufacturing or distribution facility and across the supply chain. At the end of each cycle, the RTI is re-used once again in a new cycle. A common way of managing the RTIs and their contents within these cyclic processes is to print a unique barcode label/card for each RTI for each cycle. The label/card correlates information about a specific job, order, or unit of work to the contents of the container. There are countless examples of such cyclic processes:

  • Manufacturers often send empty totes to their suppliers (who may be co-located or at a separate facility). These totes are then filled by the supplier with the specific parts tied to a specific order, such as a particular radio or sound system for the specific cars being built on the assembly line. The bins arrive in the same build sequence as the main line, the parts are installed, and then a new cycle is started. A new label is printed for the next job for that tote which is sent back to the supplier for the next cycle.
  • Retailers often use bins or totes or rolling racks that cycle from their suppliers to the retailer's own DC to the stores and back.
  • The postal service uses bins extensively to move items through their system to the destination. These are then reused for new items and destinations.
  • In hospital operating rooms, a specific set of surgical instruments is prepared and delivered in a tray or kit. After use, the instruments are sterilized and then reused for the next procedure. It is critical that this cycle is managed flawlessly, so that no instrument is ever used without having gone through sterilization.

Other industries with cyclic processes include entertainment, government, food, restaurants, and many, many more. These are just a few of numerous types of cyclic processes that can benefit from the dynamic tagging that Omni-ID is introducing. Because these processes are so diverse, each requiring their own domain expertise, Omni-ID’s strategy is to focus their own development and direct sales on Kanban3 processes within manufacturing plants, while in parallel developing partnerships with solution providers and implementers across the other various vertical applications. They have designed their architecture to be highly modular, with well-defined interfaces, so it can be integrated as a subsystem to industry-specific and application-specific solutions that others have developed, such as a hospital asset management system.

A Big Step Forward for Omni-ID . . . and the Auto-ID Industry

This is a big change for Omni-ID and a significant development for the industry. Combining these two technologies provides some compelling advantages. See “The Value of Dynamic Visual Tags” for more on why this is such a powerful combination. Omni-ID is starting a whole new chapter in their history that could prove to be a real engine of growth for the firm and source of real process improvements for their customers.

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1 UHF = Ultra-high Frequency. Within the context of RFID this refers to radio frequencies between 868-870 MHz in Europe and 902-928 MHz in the North America. -- Return to article text above
2 It does take a very modest amount of power to change the display, but once changed the display consumes no power, unlike traditional backlit flat panel displays (such as LED) which require continuous power to display. -- Return to article text above
3 Kanban is a type of manufacturing scheduling system, originally developed at Toyota, used to enable just-in-time production. Kanban is still often run using paper card-based systems.

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.




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