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Many problems can be avoided entirely by training associates on the leading causes of smart label failure, such as due diligence in selecting proper media and media handling, and replacing manual printer calibration with auto-calibration models.
Since 2001, Zebra Technologies has worked with hundreds of customers around the world who use different RFID protocols, frequencies, inlay designs, and standards. This experience has taught us several best practices that are applicable to any smart label printing operation.
Following the tips can help to get more from your smart label printing system by improving reliability, minimizing the need for operator intervention, reducing wasted labels, preventing encoding and printing errors, and yielding more usable labels per media roll.
How printers create Smart Labels
Smart label printer/encoders use media that contain an RFID inlay (chip and aluminum, copper or silver antenna bonded to a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) layer embedded within the label material. The inlay ships to the label manufacturer without adhesive (“dry”), or attached to a pressure- sensitive liner (“wet”). “Converted label” processes embed the RFID inlay into a self-adhesive paper label. An RFID encoder inside the printer writes pre-determined data to the RFID tag using radio frequency (RF) transmission. Next, the printer prints barcodes, text and graphics using the standard thermal printing process.
Selecting the right media
Matching media with the printer and application is important to the success of any label printing system but is critical for RFID smart label printing/encoding. RFID systems are designed to minimize interference, ensure data integrity and provide maximum read range. RFID read range and data integrity depend on high-quality smart labels.
The smart label must reliably transfer data in a dependable, predictable manner, and—in classic domino effect—the success or failure of the RFID system depends on meeting this requirement. Smart label material should adequately protect the inlay and not provide potential interference, which affects range and reliability. Due diligence with regard to smart label selection can make a huge difference on whether an RFID implementation achieves success or not.
Select a printer that prints and encodes on-pitch
On-pitch RFID printers encode tags at the same pitch as specified by the inlay manufacturer, thus eliminating the extra process of spreading apart the inlays prior to encoding. Successful on-pitch printing requires printers designed with tight mechanical tolerances, advanced RF technology and intelligent firmware. On-pitch RFID printers must also support easy integration with wireless networking, provide a future-proofed path for upgrades as RFID standards evolve, and offer flexibility to support various inlay types and smart label requirements.
Avoid foil and metal-based media
Do not use foil or metal-based label stocks for smart labels. Metal reflects RF signals and is a leading source of RFID interference. Embedding an RFID inlay within a metal or foil label can prevent successful encoding/reading and severely limits range. Barcode label media sometimes use foil and metal-based media to enhance barcode performance by providing more light reflection. The media provides no such benefit for RFID, which is not an optical technology.
Match the Chip Position to the Printer/Encoder
RFID users should perform testing to find the best frequency, protocol, inlay manufacturer and design for their application’s needs. A common mistake is to place a large order for smart labels early on in the testing phase without making sure the media meets optimization requirements for the chosen printer/ encoder. In fact, smart label media is often not interoperable among different brands of printer/ encoders that support the same RFID protocol. Therefore, the specific media requires calibration to the specific printer/encoder model to ensure proper alignment and encoding.
Further tips for RFID Smart Label Printing/Encoding you can download here.
Samantha is BlueStar's Digital Media Specialist, and the primary contributing writer for VartechNation. Previously, she has worked as a Public Relations Associate and a Social Media Manager.