It is a testament to the growth of the RFID industry that we are seeing the ability for RFID reader manufacturers to serve market segments more precisely. In the past, the lower volumes and the higher cost of components did not allow solution providers to target mass-produced readers to specific applications - that was the exclusive realm of the fully customized reader. That is changing. A case in point is Impinj's announcement on April 6th, 2010 of its new Speedway xPortal integrated portal reader.
The Speedway xPortal was designed specifically to target office and retail environments, rather than industrial factories, warehouses, or yards. Specifically, it is optimized for portal applications in standard doorways, hallways, and dock doors within retail, office, and hospitality settings, though it can also provide general zonal coverage as well. Some of the design features put in to specifically target this environment include:
· Smaller, flatter, form factor - Currently 4-port fixed readers often have six foot tall, six inch thick, 150 lb. antenna assemblies/chassis on each side of the portal. These are OK for a big warehouse where you want something that can survive being hit by fork lifts and pallets, but not very conducive for a door opening or hallway in an office or retail setting. The xPortal is an integrated 30" tall and 2" deep wall-mounted appliance, both esthetically and pragmatically a better fit for the target environment.
· Power-Over-Ethernet - this minimizes wiring requirements and, along with the form factor, reduces the installation time and effort.
· Tag-orientation insensitivity - in retail and office settings, there is no control over the orientation of the tags as they pass by the reader (as opposed to manufacturing lines where you control the orientation). Many readers try to overcome this by using circularly polarized antennas, which are less sensitive to tag orientation but at the cost of reduced read distance and performance compared to a linearly polarized antenna. The xPortal incorporates what Impinj calls Dual-Linear Phased-Array (DLPA) antenna. This is basically two pairs of linear antennas oriented at 90 degrees, which they can switch back forth between. This provides tag-orientation insensitivity without sacrificing the performance advantages of linearly polarized antennas.
· "Aiming the Beam" - because they use an array, it can be "aimed" - that is the power can be focused on a specific region within its field of view. The array sweeps across the entire field of view many times per second, but dwells longer in regions where it finds tags. This improves the read performance as well.
Impinj is working on solving some of the other tougher problems, and creating solutions that are useful in this application environment, like sensing the direction of motion for products going through the portal or doing "X-ray reads" to be able to read cases or items in the middle of a densely packed pallet or cart. At a $2,500 list price, the xPortal is affordable for many of the target applications.
The Future for Fixed Reader Markets
We expect very healthy growth for the embedded and customized RFID reader market. There will be more and more RFID readers in vending machines, surgical instruments, arcades and bowling alleys, industrial equipment, and a limitless variety of other applications. The general purpose fixed RFID reader, however, may see market share eroded by application-specific standardized configurations. Of course having too many unique configurations creates the need for more inventory, both on the raw material/component side and the finished goods side. So there is a middle ground, leveraging common parts (e.g. power supply or antennas) across a portfolio of application-specific devices. Limiting the complexities for channel partners is important too. A reader manufacturer might say "Here is our retail option. It's pre-configured for store operations."
The emergence of application-specific mass-market readers is a good thing. It's good for integrators (quicker installation and more reliable performance) and good for customers (better fit and better performance). And it's a sign of a maturing market with steady growth.
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