Zebra buys 200+ new patents

Focuses on transponders and antenna designs for RFID tags
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

VERNON HILLS, Ill.--Zebra Technologies announced Sept. 25 the purchase of a portfolio of more than 200 U.S. and foreign RFID patents from BTG for approximately $10 million. The acquisition makes Zebra owner of one of the largest collections of RFID patents in the world, and includes some of the earliest patents related to the technology.
According to Cindy Lieberman, director of corporate marketing for Zebra, the patents will give them the ability to deliver "improved reliability and readability of their RFID tags," as well as enabling Zebra to "use the technology in a wider range of situations. We've been a pioneer of RFID for many years, and there were things in [the portfolio] that were interesting to us--namely, transponders and antenna designs for RFID tags--that we felt could benefit our customers," said Lieberman.
Government mandates to secure supply chains for pharmaceutical companies, for example, also necessitate that the technology catches up with the demand. According to Lieberman, "Everyone is talking about needing to tag the identification of products."
Some of the problems encountered in the past have stemmed from low read rates. "There's been a lot of work done over the last five years making the tags more visible, so we think these patents can help us make better tags for our customers," said Lieberman, and though they have not been utilized yet in Zebra's technology, the "added flexibility and range of areas we can explore with our customers excites us."
Some of those customers include Wal-Mart, the Department of Defense, Cingular Wireless and Kimberly Clark. RFID technology is used to tag products subject to gray-market and black-market counterfeiting. "Wal-Mart is asking its suppliers to use RFID, so they can take advantage of it in their warehouses. If there's a reader on the shelf that tells you how many packages are gone, someone may be stealing them. But it's also replenishment--they're immediately told if [the product] is out of stock."
Tom O'Boyle, vice president of Miles Technologies in Chicago, sees RFID as a trend that will continue to be a force in the security industry. "The market itself has turned into 'here's my inventory, here's my tracking problem, can RFID help me?' We get called in on applications that otherwise we may not have. That's been an advantage to us as a systems integrator." O'Boyle also sees the demand for RFID growing in other directions. "I think that this is just the tip of the iceberg," said O'Boyle. "Today at least 90 percent [of orders] are compliance related," but he predicts that "in five years, 10 percent will be compliance and 90 percent will be internal improvement. We couldn't do that before with bar-coding."
O'Boyle's company is betting that RFID is the answer, and is further encouraged by what the Zebra purchase signals. "One of the key components is that RFID is just starting," he said. "Our goal is to grow the application as it evolves. We made heavy investments early on, but they should start paying off soon."
Zebra also announced on Oct. 4 the acquisition of all the outstanding stock of Swecoin AB, a leading supplier of thermal receipt, ticket and document printers for use in kiosks and other unattended printing applications. Phil Gerskovich, senior vice president for corporate development said in a statement that "unattended receipt and ticket printing are fast growing sectors for thermal printing and are natural adjacencies to Zebra's core on-demand RFID and bar code label printing business."