Sample and product tracking has required that identification solutions continue to evolve along with advancing technology. The latest advance in identification solutions for enhanced tracking is the development of smart labels and tags that provide far greater functionality than traditional labels. Radio-frequency identification labeling (RFID) is likely the best example of this.
What are Smart Labels
Smart labels are defined as labels that also incorporate some form of technology that expands their overall functionality. This can be achieved by making them react or change in response to some sort of trigger, such as changes in temperature, UV light, or an electrical signal. There are a number of examples of smart labels already on the market being used by a variety of industries, including the healthcare field.
The most basic form of smart label currently used is an upgraded version of barcodes. One such example is the data embedded 1D barcode, widely used to record dates and product weight for improved inventory management and control over available stock. These barcodes can encode large quantities of information and can be used to trigger specific automated procedures. However, they require a high-quality printout to be scanned, and even small amounts of damage can cause them to be unscannable. Another type of smart barcode label is the 2D QR code. These 2D barcodes can store even more information than 1D barcodes while also conferring greater durability, preventing minor scratches from affecting their code’s integrity. Furthermore, they can be scanned using mobile phones, which makes scanning easy and convenient. They can even be linked to a webpage so that scanning the barcode can open a video, load an image, or even prompt a download directly on your phone.
RFID Thermal Labels
Radio-frequency identification labeling is likely the first thing that comes to mind when smart labeling is mentioned. RFID thermal labels consist of a label that has a flexible UHF chip integrated into its design. This chip is coupled with an antenna that can receive a signal sent from a nearby RFID scanner and then relay a signal back once processed by the chip. A data processing system then analyses relayed signals, typically a computer loaded with the necessary software. Passive chips are the most commonly used type, as they are smaller in size and offer greater flexibility when incorporated into labels for RFID identification.
RFID thermal labels offer various advantages over traditional barcode labels. RFID scanners can emit their signal in a 360° radius and do not require direct line-of-sight. This means they can scan for multiple products simultaneously and without needing to remove the items from storage. As such, the installation of stationary scanners allows real-time data to be collected on inventory, as well as on sensitive specimens stored at low temperatures that can be negatively affected by repeated freeze-thaw cycles. RFID thermal labels also provide a more robust labeling option, as they will not be affected by abrasion and scratches that could render certain barcodes unscannable. They can also be encrypted to ensure their encoded information can only be accessed by a verified user, further protecting sensitive data.
Printing Smart Labels & Tags
Printing labels for RFID requires dedicated printers that can be used to encode the tags as well. This also means these labels can be printed with barcodes and alphanumeric text, further increasing their versatility. Printable RFID labels typically use thermal-transfer printers, as they offer the greatest variety in terms of material options and produce a high-quality printout. Other printing options are available, including inkjet and flexographic. However, the use of flexographic printing is usually done by a dedicated label manufacturer. This can be beneficial, as they can further provide your RFID thermal labels pre-printed with your desired text, as well as full-color graphics and logos. This allows the labels to be ready-to-use out of the box.