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Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Barcodes get smart
Check-out till at supermarket, BBC
Radio barcodes could mean the end of check-outs
The goods on supermarket shelves are about to get a lot smarter.

The University of Cambridge, UK, has just opened a centre dedicated to researching smart labelling systems that can hold much more information than the humble barcode.

The centre is working on AutoID systems, using tags fitted with radio links that can transmit data.

If widely used, the tags could help large companies speed up production lines and fine tune their supply chains.

Speed reading

Barcodes have proved enormously useful to almost every business since they were first invented more than 25 years ago.

However the big problem with barcodes is that they have to be scanned with a reader to find out the information they contain.

Bananas, BBC
This fruit could soon be fitted with a radio tag
By contrast smart tags that can be interrogated by radio can be read from a distance vastly speeding up the process of checking for almost anything.

Currently any warehouse wanting to check deliveries has to unload lorries and go through pallets of supplies one-by-one.

If all the boxes, cases and pallets were fitted with radio tags, the whole truck could be checked in a few moments as each box would report its contents automatically.

The technology magazine, Computing, speculates that the radio tags could remove the need to have check-out desks at supermarkets, could see the arrival of ice-cream that tells your fridge the temperature is too high or jars that warn you when they are out of date.

Smart and cheap

The AutoID centre at Cambridge, and its partner institution at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is refining the tag system and the language it would use to swap information with reading devices or household appliances.

The work of the centre is sponsored by Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Tesco and Wal-Mart.

Smart tags that use radio to swap information already exist and Unilever is trialling them in its supply chain.

The centre is still working on ways to make the Auto ID technology cheap enough for mass use.

The researchers say the chips and gadgets that read them need to cost three pence and 65 respectively.

Currently they are a long way off that. The readers that interrogate the smart labels currently cost around 1,400 and the labels 65p each.

But the researchers believe that once the smart tags are widely used economies of scale will rapidly bring the price down.

See also:

16 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
08 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
17 May 00 | Science/Nature
30 Apr 02 | UK
31 May 01 | Science/Nature
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