Sometimes a label is more than a label — when it’s a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag. Attached to a metal shipping container, an RFID tag is like a tiny computer, loaded with data about the object to which it’s attached. With help from ISU Extension’s Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS), an Iowa company embraced the technology and made it better.
Since 1950, Metalcraft has devised innovative solutions for its business customers’ labeling needs, from adhesive labels to bar codes. When RFID tags radically changed the labeling market, the Mason City company quickly embraced that technology as well.
RFID tags can be read wirelessly via radio signals, transferring their data automatically to an inventory management program. They also have a much longer reading range than optical bar codes and can be reprogrammed. However, they’re hard to read when attached to metal surfaces. Metal interferes with the radio signal, especially when the tags are read at longer distances.
Build a better RFID tag and Metalcraft would be a leader in tags applied to metal surfaces, thought John Henry, Metalcraft’s research and development and technical manager. He contacted CIRAS specialist Derek Thompson, who enlisted the ISU Institute for Physical Research and Technology (IPRT) Company Assistance.
IPRT helped set up a research project to develop a method that would allow an RFID tag to work on metal. Two years of research later, Metalcraft had prototypes for two new RFID antenna designs that ensure the RFID tags work even when mounted on metal surfaces.
“One of the benefits of working with CIRAS and IPRT on this project has been the capability of accessing the knowledge and proficiency of Iowa State faculty members in an area that is related to our technology but is not our primary proficiency at Metalcraft,” Henry said. “We certainly could not afford to hire someone for our staff who had this expertise. IPRT allows us to ‘pick the brains’ of people on campus who have good things to share with us.”
Metalcraft signed a license with the ISU Research Foundation to license the new intellectual property in December 2008. Patent applications are also pending. “We plan to commercialize the technology this year,” Henry said.