Integrated RFID for apparel at the Center of Recent Acquisition

Avery Dennison Smartrac intends to launch UHF RFID products that can be sewn or built into garments to provide loss prevention and tracking capabilities throughout the life of a product.

As more retailers have adopted UHF RFID technology for inventory management, many are now looking for ways to further leverage the tags attached to their products to gain more benefits and reduce costs. One area retailers have expressed interest in is loss prevention, where an RFID reader on a door can use RFID tags to identify any merchandise that is removed from the store without having been purchased.

Partly with this use case in mind, Avery Dennison Smartrac has acquired TexTrace, an integrated RFID products company, with a strategy to offer textile RFID tags that remain on garments for their lifetime, either as a sewn-on tag or integrated into the seam of a garment product. By using embedded RFID, the companies explain, retailers could achieve loss prevention because the tags cannot be easily removed.

In addition, TexTrace and Avery Dennison anticipate future applications for RFID in the recycling of end-of-life garments, provided the technology is integrated into those garments.

TexTrace was founded more than a decade ago in Frick, Switzerland with the aim of producing custom woven RFID tags for the fashion industry. The company has licensed its technology to apparel service bureaus, including Avery Dennison, which supplies the inductive coupling antenna used for the integrated tags. The acquisition, announced February 1, gives Avery Dennison ownership of the TexTrace intellectual property. Avery Dennison says employees will continue to work from the Frick office.

A global retailer, who has asked not to be named, is incorporating TexTrace’s labels into its garments while Avery Denison holds discussions with other potential customers. Further developments are planned to make the textile-based labels more robust for repeated washing. Currently, the labels can withstand around four or five wash cycles, while the company predicts future versions could survive hundreds of wash cycles.

Avery Dennison intends to provide TexTrace technology throughout the life of a garment, allowing the tags to be read along the supply chain, in stores and by disposal companies when clothing is discarded, thereby ensuring the tags are properly recycled or reused.

In recent years, according to Mathieu De Backer, senior director of segment innovation at Avery Dennison Smartrac, “we are seeing an increasing need for integrated technologies in the apparel industry.” Part of the company’s vision, he says, is “a future in that the digital world will always be connected to the physical world, so that every physical thing will have a digital entity.”

The acquisition of TexTrace, explains De Backer, is intended to further these efforts. As more retailers already using RFID look for ways to leverage the technology further, De Backer says loss prevention is becoming a priority. Traditional Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) often involves a hard tag that must be attached to garments in the store and then removed at the point of sale. The cost of the tags, he notes, and the labor involved in using them can be relatively expensive and time-consuming.

By acquiring TexTrace and offering its technology as an alternative to paper-based hang tags, Avery Dennison intends to enable loss prevention for use cases where EAS technology has historically been used.

EAS, De Backer explains, can trigger alarms without providing information about what is being removed, while RFID provides that information. To use RFID for loss prevention, companies would need to integrate the technology into garments. Otherwise, it is too easy for individuals to tear off tags and walk out of a store with the garments, leaving the tags behind.

In addition to preventing losses, Avery Dennison reports that another benefit of embedded RFID is the ability to track a garment’s lifespan. When clothing is thrown away, it often ends up in a waste stream, such as a recycling station where products are sorted based on their materials. If RFID functionality is built into each garment and the recycling provider interrogates its tag with an RFID reader, the company could collect data such as the materials used in the product (e.g. cotton or polyester) so that it can be properly sorted for recycling or reuse.

Sorting of recycled goods is currently a manual process. Workers may sit in front of a stack of clothing, visually examining each tag and determining which items are polyester and which are polyimide. “Everything manually,” says De Backer. “If you could think about automating the sorting process with an RFID tag, I think that would be great.” Because that would make the process more efficient, Avery Dennison predicts that more garments will be sent back for recycling so that the material doesn’t end up on a landfill lands.

“I think if RFID becomes a more integrated part of the garment, you can also enable circularity in the garment industry,” says De Backer. For example, the company sees the integrated RFID tags as a benefit for clothing rentals or leases, where customers purchase clothing and then return it to vendors for reuse by others. To enable such use cases, the company intends to further develop the chip to improve its robustness.

For manufacturers, De Backer says, attaching textile-based labels, or integrating RFID directly into garments that are typically sewn into the seam, may not be much different than attaching paper labels. While service companies currently offer RFID tags in the form of hangtags, they could now simply offer a soft tag that could be sewn into garments during the manufacturing process. Integrated RFID also offers the opportunity for future consumer interactions, the company notes, by combining supply chain visibility with reuse and recycling information to create a connection between brands and consumers.

The technology works with dual-frequency tags that include Near Field Communication or HF-RFID at 13.56 MHz. Regarding privacy concerns with UHF-RFID, De Backer says the retailer could allow the RFID chip to be switched into “protective mode”. At that point, the tag would be unrecognizable by an RFID reader until it is turned back on with a specific password — for example, when the garment it was attached to is returned to the store or taken to a recycling center.

Such functionality would require industry-wide standardization, he says, so that the tags could be interrogated by multiple authorized parties throughout their lifetime. “We still need to work with the industry to standardize that,” he says, “so everyone is using the same methodology.” According to De Backer, Avery Dennison could be a leader in this, as a standardized system for tracking a garment’s lifespan is best interests of the company.

Avery Dennison does not expect paper labels to be completely phased out for RFID tagging of clothing, although De Backer expects that there will be more integrated RFID solutions over time. “It’s a process.” Embedded RFID is a relatively new technology, he notes, which could follow a similar trajectory to the adoption trajectory of RFID in retail paper tags. “We want to do the right thing for ourselves,” he says, “but also for our planet.”

This article first appeared in SSI’s sister publication, RFID Journal, where Claire Swedberg serves as senior editor.

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