Alien products target closed-loop RFID networks

New products enable single-enterprise systems for asset tracking and inventory management

RFID supplier Alien Technology has introduced tags, a tag reader and a portal reader, all aimed at a new market: the growing demand for wireless asset management and inventory tracking inside a single enterprise.

Alien's products are intended to make it easier and less expensive to deploy these in-house RFID systems.

Originally, like most RFID companies, Alien focused on supply chain applications that span several enterprises. Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense are two examples of organizations driving the "RFID mandate" market, where a key buyer decrees that its suppliers must adopt radio tags for boxes or pallets of their products. Wal-Mart still expects huge payoffs from this system.

"This [mandate market] is going slower than expected, says Ronny Harldsvik, vice president of marketing and business development for Alien. "But what we've seen is large companies in various industries doing their own pilots and testing, and now installing, closed-loop RFID nets for asset and inventory tracking."

One incentive for doing so is the emergence of products such as Microsoft's BizTalk Server with RFID and a new version of IBM's WebSphere. Both can now collect data from networks of RFID tag readers, process it, and pass it on to enterprise applications such as ERP and inventory management systems, Harldsvik says.

Alien's products are "passive RFID" where radio energy from the reader hits the tag, which reflects back part of that energy, carrying with it the unique tag number. Active RFID systems include a radio in the tag itself, and these are typically based on Wi-Fi or on proprietary radio systems.

Alien's new ALR-9900 reader, for Gen 2 RFID tags, is designed for internal enterprise applications. It's about the size of a small, thick, rugged notebook PC, or about 50 percent smaller than the older model 9800. But it's read rate -- the successful read of RFID tags at specified ranges in a given time period -- is 30 percent greater, according to Harldsvik. The read rate was boosted by improving antenna sensitivity and better interference rejection. Available in October, the 9900 is priced at US$2,199, with volume discounts.

Also new is the ALR-9650, which is a compact, low-cost reader that incorporates a built-in antenna and power-over-Ethernet. Essentially, this model is intended for fast, inexpensive RFID applications that don't require the performance of far more costly, high-end readers. Possible uses are tracking of in-house assets, court documents, or library items. The list price of US$1,099, with volume discounts available, is "unique" for RFID readers, about one-third the price of high-end products, Harldsvik says. It ships in December.

A new portable, portal-style reader, the ALR-9824, is designed for easy installation on hard-use areas such as loading docks, using Alien's ALR-9800 Gen 2 reader with four high-gain antennas. It's available now.

All Alien readers support interfaces to a variety of middleware and enterprise applications, including Microsoft BizTalk Server 2006 R2, IBM WebSphere 6.0,Oracle and others.

Lastly, the company announced two products in its compact Squiggle tag family. The Squiggle-SQ is about the size of postage stamp, and is targeted at tagging high-value items such as prescription drugs. The new Squiggle-SH is an inlay designed for use in applications that use a 3-inch label. Both will be available in volume in December.

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