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Custom RFID Tags: The Ultimate Guide

RFID solutions can transform a business in surprising ways. But achieving success requires a system engineered for the job. Welcome to the ultimate guide on custom RFID tags.

A well-engineered RFID solution can free up time, labor and capital resources to reduce the costs associated with asset tracking and management processes. It also improves the accuracy and timeliness of the data you need. It does this by automating the collection of data, and eliminating the errors and inaccuracies associated with methods that involve operators.

This is true especially if your business is switching from a pen and paper or barcode-based solution. But if you want to optimize the benefits of an RFID system, the RFID tag at the center of it needs to align with your asset management process.

That’s why today we’re taking a deep dive into custom RFID tags: what they are, when you should use them and how they can impact your bottom line. Let’s get started.

I. What is a Custom RFID Tag?

A custom RFID tag can be defined as a tag that requires specialized design or engineering in order to fit a specific business process. An off-the-shelf tag can work for standard applications. But there are times when a custom tag, optimized for your business processes, can greatly improve the performance of the system.

How are Custom RFID Tags Developed?

The development of a custom RFID tag starts with objectives and requirements. This includes constraints, timeline, cost, , geometry, environment and application for the business process in question. In order to get the performance the system needs, all of these criteria need to be met. At times, a standard product does not exist that will ‘check all the boxes’. That is when you need a custom RFID tag.

From there, the RFID tag provider’s design team goes to work finding a way to meet the requirements. Sometimes the team will know what to do because they’ve done similar things before. In this case, they may be able to make small changes to existing tags to fully meet the specifications. This is a low risk, low cost and relatively short development cycle.

If the project requires a completely new design, the tag engineers will start by creating an electronic model of the application and creating a model of a tag that meets the requirements of the application in the simulated use case.

The next step is to create prototype versions of the tag design that is believed to meet the requirements. The manufacturer will build small batches of several variations of the tag so they have slightly different designs to experiment with. This is done because the model is rarely a perfect simulation of the real world, but it is very likely that one of the variations of the tag will be a close match with the desired performance.

Once the design team has working samples of the tag, testing under lab conditions is done. The tags are tested in standard conditions to establish baseline performance. Then, the tags are tested in conditions similar to the expected conditions of use. This often includes testing of the tags attached to the product as they would be in use, and read by devices configured as they will be in the business process.

If the design is validated- meaning it works under the conditions it will be used in- the product can proceed to a pilot production run. If not, the design team goes through the design-prototype-testing cycle again until they get a tag that does what they want it to.

Once the design team validates the design and produces the pilot models, the next step is application testing. Most providers can do certain normal tests. If it’s extreme testing like high temperatures for hundreds of exposures, the test will need to be done externally.

After it is validated and tested, the custom tag can enter a full production run, ship and begin the deployment.

Who Manufactures Custom RFID Tags?

There are some considerations to be mindful of while looking for a custom RFID solution.

First, there are a limited number of people or organizations that have the design experience to be able to create new tags, with confidence, quickly. If you’re considering working with a custom tag manufacturer, the first thing you want to look for is a track record and established history of RFID tag design. Because if they don’t have the experience of designing tags, they’re not going to be able to create a custom tag for you. You want to go to someone with experience designing the tags. And if those designers build the tags, all the better, because it’s one continuous process.

You’re also going to need a designer who’s willing to do custom tags at a scale that is appropriate for the project you’ve got in mind. Not many tag manufacturers who do have design expertise are willing to do custom project less than a million tags. (Vizinex is unique in that we do rapid, low volume custom development and fulfillment in the U.S.). For a custom project to be successful, you’ll need to match the scale of the manufacturer to the size of the project you need.

Another consideration is the cycle time of the designer. The custom tag process takes more time (as outlined above) and development cycles can be lengthy. Some manufacturers have long design cycles, while others move quickly.

It’s also worth being mindful of contractual or legal restraints such as location or place of origin. For example, a project might require the materials, design and manufacturing of the tags to originate in the U.S.

However, despite these limitations, because they are often designed to precisely fit an application, custom tags lead to a better and longer RFID deployment.

Custom RFID tag manufacturing equipment

II. For What Applications are Custom Tags a Good Fit?

When deploying RFID, what you want to do is to collect accurate data quickly and efficiently. But to do this, you’ll need your tags to perform well. For a lot of applications, off-the-shelf tags will get the job done. But for more specialized applications, factors such as extreme environments, high concentrations of metal and uncompromising product design can cause off-the-shelf tags to fall short.

When a tag falls short in a specialized application, the performance and quality of data become degraded. In contrast, a tag engineered for that situation can perform well under those stressors while substantially improving the efficiency of that whole system and the data collection process. Here are some of the application specific requirements that can make custom tags a good fit.

Materials & Interference

A major factor that can cause standard tags to fail is exceptional stress caused by the materials in the application environment. For applications that require a tag to handle adverse chemistry, vibration, dust and extreme temperatures, a standard tag will deliver suboptimal performance and, in many cases, fail.

Additionally, other environmental factors negatively impact the radio waves as the tag and reader communicate. In spaces with high quantities of metal, metallic interference can reflect and alter radio waves. Similarly, moisture and fluids impact RFID performance by absorbing radio waves. If you have an asset that needs tracking in these conditions, an off-the-shelf tag won’t cut it.

For example, if you need to track a weapon asset, you can expect the tag to face severe chemistries, vibrations and extreme temperatures on a constant basis. Additionally, the tag will have to perform while mounted on the metal weapon it’s tracking, and while surrounded by hundreds of other metal weapons. A tag that isn’t built for this application will yield suboptimal performance, potentially leading to lost weapons and assets.

Fortunately, if you know the materials in that environment, you can design a custom tag to work around the problematic materials.

 Durability

Standard tags are designed to perform for applications that place standard duress on the tag. For example, tracking inventory on a pallet is a simple application that most off-the-shelf tags can handle because the application causes little duress to the tag. As long as the inventory does not contain material that interferes with RFID frequencies, the standard tags are the right choice.

If your application has unique durability requirements, you might need a tag that can survive and perform under those conditions.

Dimensions & Footprint

Another factor that could prevent a standard tag from working is footprint—the size of the tag. If you want to tag a small or irregularly shaped object, there are going to be challenges and limitations in mounting the tag.

First, the size and form factor of the asset will determine how much space you have to mount a tag. If you’re tracking a pallet or large rental asset, this isn’t a problem. But if you need to track a small asset, like a medical device, or an asset with a complex design, like data center equipment, you’ll need a smaller tag.

Second, even if you have an asset large enough to support the tag, assets that are round or irregularly shaped – like electrical wiring – will require a tag designed to mount on that shape.

The third factor affecting tag footprint is thickness. You might have an asset that can only work with a thinner tag. Not every RFID service provider will carry an ultra-thin RFID tag. If you can’t find one off-the-shelf, you’ll need a custom one developed.

Say, for example, you want to track a medical instrument such as a scalpel. If you mount the tag directly to the instrument, it may fall or get knocked off. It also better be compatible with medical materials and able to survive autoclave sterilization. Additionally, the tag needs to be shaped so that it doesn’t get in the way of the doctor during use. Because of these particular ergonomic requirements, a special tag is necessary.

Lastly, one final consideration is the combination of read range and footprint. Generally, the bigger the passive tag, the longer the read range. Many businesses deploying RFID prefer a longer read range because it allows them to track assets at greater distances. But if you want a long read range for a small asset – one without enough real estate for the larger tag – you’ll need to go the custom route.

Cost Requirements

Sometimes businesses require a high-performance tag at a specific price. A custom tag provider can work within your constraints to explore whether it’s possible to get $8 of performance out of a $4 custom tag. They may be able to help you get to your goals by taking a different approach to the problem.

Custom RFID tag manufacturing equipment

III. How Do Businesses Benefit from Custom RFID Tags?

Custom tags can bring benefits associated with performance, durability and cost savings. But experiencing these benefits is only possible if the tag was engineered correctly. This means examining whatever business process you’re trying to improve.

Performance

The performance of an RFID tag is dependent on the environment, the reader position, and the other materials in that environment. It may not be able to achieve the performance that, on paper, it is supposed to achieve because of those conditions.

So, while off-the-shelf RFID tags will work for many applications, it’s always possible performance will degrade over time. This can happen if the specific application wasn’t considered during the production of the tag.

In contrast, when you engineer the tag for the application, the performance becomes predictable. You can overcome some of the problems the standard tag may have had with the environmental conditions because you’ve had the opportunity to engineer around those problems.

Because of this, custom RFID tags offer significant performance benefits, like longer lifespans, the collection of better data and more consistent reads at the required range.

Cost Savings

One misconception about custom RFID tags is that they are expensive. This is only partially true. They typically cost more upfront than an off-the-shelf tag, but not by much. The performance boost you get more than compensates for that cost differential.

Custom tags primarily achieve cost savings at the system level by providing better data and improvements to the system. Because the system is going to perform better, you get more accurate data more reliably and quickly, which drives cost savings.

In addition to system-level cost savings, custom tags can sometimes save money on tag prices. In fact, there are cases where replacing an off-the-shelf tag with a custom tag can lead to significant cost savings.

Recently, we worked on a project where someone was using a premium, high-performance, off-the-shelf tag that cost $8 that was performing sub-optimally for their application. This tag wasn’t performing properly because of the way it was mounted and the materials that were involved. This resulted in a substantially degraded performance at a premium tag price that didn’t meet the requirements of the deployment.

By engineering the right tag, for the right set of materials, and the right geometry, we achieved the same performance with a tag that cost 15% percent of the price of the original tag. That’s equal or better performance at an 85% cost reduction through custom tags.

Conclusion

Custom RFID solutions can help dramatically optimize costs and efficiencies around asset tracking and management by improving your data collection process and the accuracy of your data. But only when developed with your business processes in mind. So, the better you understand your needs and the materials and requirements of your environment, the better the results.

Want to design the exact RFID solution your business process needs? Vizinex can help. Contact us today with your RFID questions.

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