Paul Vogt, European Product Marketing Manager at Zebra Technologies, looks at the revolutionary impact of Bluetooth wireless technology on the future of the Smart label.

Over the last five years we have witnessed the dramatic expansion in the use of bar code data collection into new applications. These new applications are typically based around mobile computing technology. Mobile data capture devices are being used across a diverse range of applications from the warehouse to the van, from the factory to the retail store.

Bar code label printers are traditionally associated with standalone desktop industrial applications, but these new mobile applications demand printed output too. Users have new requirements and are asking for specialised printer net-working capabilities, on line label applicators and portable label and receipt printers.

Labels too have come a long way from being simple identification tools. Apart from the multitude of media and fabrics now involved, there is a whole host of new data to be included on many labels. For example, Verberg Timber, a timber manufacturer in Sweden, adds data to labels that indicates what processes each piece of timber has been through.

Improved labelling technologies mean that more data can be stored and new innovations such as Bluetooth and RF-ID are fundamentally changing the concept of the label.

RF-ID – What’s New
RF-ID means that items can be scanned without line of sight being necessary. We are already using RF-ID in our every day lives without a second thought. Remote car locks use the technology. However, in the bar coding industry, implementation of RF-ID has been a slower process. Bar codes have been around for over 20 years. They are an established technology and once the equipment is installed, maintenance and running costs are relatively low. Part of the reason behind the relatively slow take-up is that processes would have to change. The ‘smart-label’ is very low in cost, but the equipment to read the label can be expensive. In order for the labels to be effective, changes would have to be made throughout the entire supply chain and equipment would have to be implemented at every port of call. It won’t be long before this happens through. With today’s large, widespread supply chains, the tracking of goods becomes imperative in order for the successful delivery of goods to the end-user. Today, the industry sectors that benefit the most from RF-ID are in retail and distribution applications.

Early adopters of new technology are often the winners. There are already pilot operations using RF-ID which have been tried and tested successfully. Airlines have used RF-ID on luggage tags. Suitcases pass through the scanning gate, and information regarding the final destination is registered via the RF-ID tag and the luggage is placed on the correct plane. This also has implications in airport security as rogue suitcase are not able to turn up in unexpected locations, which often results in suitcases being destroyed.

A simple examples of RF-ID in action is in ticketing. How many times have you had to queue for tickets at a busy station and as a result missed the train you intended to catch? RF-ID will be able to solve this problem. Every time a person steps onto a train or bus, the RF-ID tag on a credit card will automatically activate the ticket machine in the train. You will be able to confirm your destination and payment will be charged back to your RF-ID credit card. No more queues.

What Does Bluetooth Mean for Labelling?
Bluetooth is a wireless technology that enables instant wireless connections between various communication devices such as mobile phones, lap-top computers and PDAs. It uses radio transmission, which is built into a small microchip capable of operating in a globally available frequency band ensuring worldwide compatibility. It has been predicted that before the year 2002, Bluetooth technology will have been built into hundreds of millions of electronic devices.

Where does the bar code label fit into this? In the future, by embedding Bluetooth compatible chips into the label, any item with this label attached can be ‘spoken’ to in any location worldwide from a Bluetooth compatible device. Anyone can read the chip and track and trace the whereabouts of goods. Of course, security measures would also have to be implemented to ensure that only the relevant people have access to this information. This technology potentially has a place in every industry sector, but the industries that are likely to reap the most benefits initially will be the express parcel services, retail and logistics.

The wireless warehouse or shop floor has been made possible in recent years due to innovations such as the mobile bar code printer. Wireless systems improve efficiency and make the workplace a safer environment by removing cables. Bluetooth takes this one step further. It introduces a standard for every computer device, making it possible for every single device to be wireless; there is no plugging-in involved. Each device will be capable of talking to another. From the moment that you step into the office your hand-held device can talk to the network automatically. A complete cable-free environment is created. This year Zebra Technologies will offer wireless communication as an ‘add-on’ feature to the Zebra bar code printer range. By the end of 2001, Zebra’s mobile printers will be Bluetooth compliant.

Steps Forward
It is clear that RF-ID and Bluetooth will have a big impact on the labelling industry. Companies are likely to have to form strategic partnerships in order to profit from it. Zebra Technologies is in partnership with Symbol and Texas Instruments to progress the RF-ID smart label. So as the label becomes an electronic device, the labelling industry will have to reassess its traditional strengths in order for it to move forward.

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