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RFID Tags: In-line Production Fostering Rapid Growth

RFID Tags: In-line Production Fostering Rapid Growth

With all the get-rich-quick schemes you hear about, it’s nice to see a company commit to a long-term plan, then see it come to fruition. Such is the case with Metalcraft.

In the late 1990s, Metalcraft saw great potential in the field of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and entered into the marketplace. As Steve Doerfler, President and CEO of Metalcraft notes, RFID made up less than 5% of Metalcraft’s business in 2008.

Steve Doerfler, Metalcraft

Steve Doerfler, Metalcraft

Today it’s over 40% of their business. The company grew 72% in RFID last year alone, and projections are for more growth in 2018.  

To understand what’s fueling the growth, let’s begin by answering a few questions about RFID.

What does RFID stand for?

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification.

What is RFID and how does it work?

An RFID system uses electromagnetic fields to identify and track assets or to allow access control. The system uses tags, which contain electronically stored data.  There are two types of tags:

Passive tags:  A passive tag contains an integrated chip which communicates via a radio energy signal to a RFID reader.  It can be used to provide inventory control, tracking movable assets such as return containers or a notebook.

Active tags: An active tag has a local power source, such as a battery, and can operate at further distances from an RFID reader. This may include a tag used to provide access control, such as an Employee ID into a parking lot.


RFID vs Barcodes

Barcodes, those scannable vertical lines found on all types ofproducts, are the dominant method for tracking.  RFID tags, however, provide a significant advantage as they don’t require a “line of sight.”  You don’t need to scan each individual item at the grocery store, for example. The signal from the tag is pinged to the RFID reader.

RFID tags also allow you to collect large amounts of data in short amounts of time.  For example, an RFID tag can be used at a marathon to track runners crossing the finish line, instantly recording multiple times.

Different types of RFID tags

RFID tags can come in all shapes and sizes, from thin labels that can be affixed to an asset, to durable labels. The tags can work on metal, wood and plastic, although the type of antenna and tag will vary based on the material you use.

Examples of types of RFID tags include:

  • Labels (including thin film options)
  • Windshield tags
  • Wrist tags
  • Key fobs
  • Rearview mirror hanging tags
  • Credential tags

How did Metalcraft enter the RFID market?

When Metalcraft entered the marketplace in the late 1990s, they initially focused on asset control. It was a very new, emerging technology, and Doerfler said, “It took us a few years to figure out what we were going to do.”

You're educating in the early years.

The marketplace was also uncertain about the new technology.  “With an emerging technology, most of the early years you are educating and making a case for it,” he continued. “You find one or two trailblazers who are going to implement it.”

They found their trailblazers, and Metalcraft began producing asset tags in 2004.

To make the tags, the company built their own converting press. They used it to insert an RFID inlay between printed face stocks, which were then die cut. The company then moved on to access control.

In 2006, they began using a Delta ModTech converting system for in-line production and data management.  The Delta system helped Metalcraft customize based on the needs of the customer, using different adhesives and substrates.  

“It’s more economical to program in-line,” Doerfler said.

Data management is the new terrain for RFID systems

One of the main benefits for RFID is the vast amount of data which it captures. Doerfler was surprised that this proved to be the area where customers often need the most help.  “We had assumed the marketplace would manage it, but it’s not,” he said.

Customers need help managing data.

To fill the void, Metalcraft helps customers manage their data, such as keeping track of the number that’s assigned to a product. Using in-line methods or programming offline, they can ensure all of the numbers are readable and won’t be duplicated.

“We use a read – write – read system, in which we read the information from a barcode, write it into a tag, and read it to verify the information has been programmed correctly,” Doerfler said.

Challenges for RFID and converters

The future looks bright for RFID as the industry continues to emerge.  Doerfler said they are no longer the ones educating the marketplace.  Now industry events and publications (like this one) are helping to spread the word.  

Despite the growth, Metalcraft and other converters will look to overcome some prevailing challenges:

Infrastructure: The main challenge for customers is the investment in infrastructure, such as setting up portals and mobile readers.

Capacity: Given the fact that RFID continues to emerge and grow, converters will need to find the capacity needed to support customers.

Variability: Every customer has different needs. You must have the equipment and the Engineering talent and resources to deliver.

Prior successes lead to future growth

Doerfler is happy with Metalcraft’s past successes in RFID.  The growing pains from those early years is beginning to pay off. Now the challenge will be to maintain the sense of innovation that fostered the initial growth.

RFID tags can lead to a world of possibilities for companies like Metalcraft. Areas like data management, for example, provide converters with ample opportunities to integrate other value-adds into their approach.

Much work has been done, yet there is much work to do. For the RFID converters like Metalcraft, past success doesn’t guarantee future profits.  However, those that continue to innovate with new processes and equipment will always stand the test of time.