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Printable Radio Tags Could Be Used to Track What You Read

Editor and Publisher

NEW YORK -- It's worth knowing if news racks or stores get the right number of the right copies with all sections, supplements, and ad inserts, and learning if or when copies sell out. Those are among the operational advantages of radio-frequency identification. RFID technology's tiny "tags" -- programmable and each unique, unlike bar codes -- also may yield other information by means of comparing data over time.

Industry analyst Miles Groves said it would be "tremendous to use them to see where the path goes" for single copies. "A day in the life of a newspaper ... would be a very interesting study" in terms of location, pass-along, retention, recycling, and other data. "I think on the preprint side for major retailers there'd be a lot of interest," he said, in learning what happens to ads, particularly for specific inserts and zones.

It could provide a series of snapshots of customer behavior over time and across space. Where and when do people working in a given location buy papers? Do they bring them home, or do others read them later in other locations? Do home subscribers carry copies to work? Do workplace subscribers take copies home? All sections, or some? Only on some days?

"I think it will eventually be possible," said Dan Lawrence, a materials science engineer at work on RFIDs for packagers and printers. But such external applications face "major hurdles," he added, citing a current read range of "a few inches to a few yards" and a need to get the cost down.

For now, RFID is emerging as a supply-chain support technology. Unlike bar codes, which track newsprint, record sales and even sort plates for the pressroom, RFID eliminates the need to scan each item. Radio tags identify and may briefly describe objects near an electronic reader. The technology has recently developed into products thanks to shrinking size and cost. The good news for newspapers is that the ordinarily adhesive "tags" probably will be printable. Consisting of a microcircuit connected to a flat, coiled antenna, they are powered by an electronic reader's signal.

Academic and commercial heavyweights help drive development. Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Auto-ID Center -- a partnership of universities and businesses -- is working on standards, specifications, and software for an Internet-based system that will allow computers to identify any object anywhere. On the trade side, Wal-Mart, which made bar codes an everyday tool, and the U.S. Defense Department expect suppliers to tag their goods in 2005.

Longtime London-based technology leader Associated Newspapers Ltd. is exploring RFID applications, but its technology chief, Associated Mediabase Managing Director Allan Marshall, declined to elaborate, citing nondisclosure agreements.

Similarly, Lawrence won't identify his business' clients, saying only, "We would be interested in talking to any or all newspaper companies." The technology and commercialization director at Flint Ink's newly formed Precisia unit said antennas printed with conductive inks can achieve the range of stamped-copper antennas.

As adoption spreads from packaging to publishing, Lawrence sees early application in promotions -- tie-ins to advertisers, say, for discounting -- and in logistics, from suppliers (it's been tried for newsprint) to distributors. Outlets able to read tags could, for example, automatically communicate to newspapers a need to replenish. The paper, in turn, would "understand what's getting bought where, when," said Lawrence.

According to Precisia, tag cost may fall from 50 cents to under a dime. Using special inks, newspapers may themselves make part or all of an RFID. "I think there'll be an evolution toward that," said Lawrence. "At the very least, you'll probably have to dedicate a print unit to apply the antenna ink." Alternatively, a paper could rely on a post-press printer. "It doesn't tie up the main machine," he said, "and you still get the volume you need" for a given portion of a run. Precisia's research center, he said, will explore RFIDs' place in newspaper workflow.

Precisia's color and translucent formulas may provide an "ability to ... have some graphic function," Lawrence added. Antennas are printable now, but circuit printing is "anywhere from two to 10 years out," he said. The equivalent of a chip, he explained, would be built in layers, much as process color is created from several inks.

Silver-based flexo and litho inks offer up to several yards' range. While costlier than carbon-based inks or copper, silver is cost-effectively printed and (like polymer-based circuits) recyclable. After tests on slightly sturdier stock, Lawrence said newsprint also should work. Readers for close-range work, he said, are now "approximately the size of a compact flash [memory] card" -- roughly the area of a postage-stamp. In external environments, more-sensitive readers might piggyback on other, existing infrastructures -- public transportation, say, or the system of mobile-phone cells.

Besides cost and range, after-sale tracking is fraught with a hot issue: Wherever RFIDs may be publicly read, Lawrence said, "privacy is first and foremost." Last month, NCR announced a "kill" option for its RFID retail check-out technology which deactivates tags after purchase.

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