Smart tags: Shopping will never be the same

Sophisticated labels will talk to your oven, tell you when something's too old to use, and much more

It's a silent revolution, and it's coming soon to a store near you.

With the wave of a hand-held scanner, supermarket aisles of dormant canned goods and detergents will come alive, each abuzz with electronic information about its exact location, shelf life, directions for use, and recycling. A razor blade may even be able to alert store security that it's being shoplifted.

Future smart tags will be able to tell manufacturers when to restock store shelves, then entice consumers to buy products.

All that will be brought about by a network of smart tags or labels containing tiny microchips, wireless antennas, and even batteries as flat and flexible as a business card.

The new tags will carry an electronic product code able to identify more than 268 million manufacturers, each with more than 1 million unique products, such as Tide With Bleach. That's far more than today's bar codes, which can identify 100,000 manufacturers and types of products. And because smart tags use wireless radio-frequency technology similar to that in automatic toll-collection systems, they can be read from any angle. Bar codes must be scanned head-on.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge is at the focal point of the smart-tag revolution. The MIT Auto-ID Center is developing the language and network scaffolding its corporate partners will use in smart tags brimming with information about where an individual bottle of shampoo, for example, is at any given time in the distribution channel. That may translate into less product theft or counterfeiting, and more direct communication with consumers.

No more shopping lists

If the MIT center's vision comes true, by 2010, a consumer at work may be able to dial home via the Internet to see if his or her pantry contains all the ingredients to make lasagna for dinner. If not, the pantry will pass along a list of missing items to the local supermarket, which will make sure the noodles and sauce are waiting in a shopping cart when the customer arrives.

Then, the shopper can peruse the cheese case, where mozzarella is always on hand, because smart shelves and labels on the cheese alert the manufacturer when it's time to restock. The hamburger also has a smart label telling whether it has been kept properly refrigerated, and even offering a lasagna recipe.

Checkout is just as easy: Shoppers need only roll their carts out the door and pack their groceries. The intelligent shopping cart already will have tallied all the items, and a swipe of the consumer's own smart card will debit the bill automatically from a checking account. Once at home, a smart tag can tell a smart range to boil the noodles for 10 minutes, and have the oven preheat itself just in time to bake the prepared lasagna.

A virtual smorgasbord of technology is now in the making at the MIT Auto-ID Center. About two dozen companies and industry groups are collaborating with the center, including microelectronics firm Alien Technology, consumer goods maker Gillette, container manufacturer International Paper, and retailer Wal-Mart Stores.

The key technologies at the MIT center are the 96-bit electronic product code that will be placed on each smart tag to identify each product, as well as a Product Markup Language under development that will describe the product and include how-to-cook instructions or information on storage temperature and moisture.

An Object Name Service will link the electronic product code and Product Markup Language, telling computers where to locate information on the Internet about any object carrying an electronic product code.

Scanners to read the information will be put into hand-held computers, cellular phones, store shelves, and doorways. MIT's partners will contribute the microchip, wireless antenna, battery, and other technologies to make the smart tags.

"We'll define the framework, and then companies will define the tags," says Daniel Engels, program manager of the MIT Auto-ID Center. The center soon will begin a small pilot project, and within the next 18 months, test its technology at several stores.

Tracking every item

The initial application for the tags is in supply-chain management, or tracking the movement of goods from the factory floor through the distribution system.

"The power of the smart-tag technology is that it will create one highway, like the Internet, that everyone can drive on," says Richard Cantwell, vice president of global business management at Gillette in Boston. "And we can make sure products are on the shelf when the consumer wants to buy them."

Mr. Cantwell envisions a day when a consumer can point a cellphone with a scanner at a new Gillette product and learn about its features from the company's website, right in the store. "We might even offer them $1 off if they buy the product right then," he says.

Steven Van Fleet, program director of e-packaging and silent commerce at International Paper in Purchase, N.Y., is equally enthusiastic. "We'll put a radio frequency ID tag on everything that moves in the North American supply chain," says Mr. Van Fleet. He said anywhere from 2 percent to 7 percent of products are stolen or misplaced during distribution, and the new smart tags will let companies like his track them down on a per-item basis.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition estimates that trademark counterfeiting, another major problem in the distribution chain, robs US companies of $200 billion in revenue annually. Smart tags could reduce the losses significantly.

MIT's Engels doesn't expect smart tags to replace bar codes any time soon, but new microchip and other technologies are starting to drive down their cost. In a few years, tags without batteries will cost about 5 cents each, but in five to 10 years they will cost 1 cent each, which is competitive with today's bar codes.

Motorola of Schaumburg, Ill., already has trimmed the cost of a radio-frequency ID tag to 50 cents from $3, using its BiStatix technology, which removes some of the traditional electronics and prints the antenna onto paper using carbon ink. Similarly, Alien Technology of Morgan Hill, Calif., has developed a new process that could greatly reduce the cost and size of microchips for smart tags. Stan Drobac, vice president of business development, said Alien's process cuts smaller chips from wafers using chemicals rather than special saws, and then moves them en masse in water rather than one-by-one by robots during production. The first smart-tag chip using the technology may be ready in 2002. Other new and complementary tag technologies already are seeping into the market. PhotoSecure of Boston has developed photosensitive dyes for two-dimensional bar codes that are visible only under a special light, to foil counterfeiters.

And Power Paper Ltd. of Israel is collaborating with International Paper to combine its flat, flexible battery with a microchip that can be put into interactive packages. International Paper estimates that more than 500 million smart packages will be used within three years to sell everything from French fries to electronics. Says Baruch Levanon, head of Power Paper, "Most of the technology for smart packages already exists. We just need to integrate it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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