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Avery Develops Bluetooth Tags

Avery Dennison Corp. has invested in a company that has developed a sticker-sized tag that can track a product from manufacture to purchase to the home of the consumer. The Glendale maker of self-adhesive labels, apparel tags and medical products joined an investment group that includes Amazon Web Services and Samsung Venture Investment Corp. to put $30 million into Wiliot, an Israeli semiconductor company with business development headquarters in San Diego. Steve Statler, senior vice president of marketing and business development for Wiliot, said the low-cost tags operate through a Bluetooth connection available on any smartphone, do not need batteries and are maintenance free. “We are taking Bluetooth into places that it’s never been before,” Statler said. Avery Dennison already offers radio frequency identification tags, or RFID, used in the aviation industry to track luggage and in the health, beauty and food industries to track products to improve inventory accuracy and aid in loss prevention. However, RFID requires expensive and bulky machines to read the tags on products – technology that is unavailable to consumers. But with the Wiliot solution opens up new possibilities since it can perform the same functions with consumer-facing products including smartphones and virtual assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home. The price of the tags has not been set but is expected to be “significantly less than a dollar,” Statler said. Implementations Max Winograd, director of open innovation and venture investments at Avery Dennison, gave an example of how these tags can be used with a smart pill bottle. The tag is applied to a bottle and then can detect changes in its weight to determine if the medication is being taken. If there is no change, a reminder could be sent to the consumer’s smartphone or home virtual assistant, he said. “It can create a way to make everyday items more connected and more intelligent,” Winograd said. “It can create a safer world, a more connected world and an experience that can give brands a way to better serve their customers.” Statler gave an example of integrating the tags into clothing. The apparel industry is moving in the direction of putting serial numbers on every individual piece of clothing to improve traceability, he said. Having a Bluetooth tag like the one being developed by Wiliot helps in monitoring the manufacturing process and to make sure that clothing isn’t ending up in places it shouldn’t. The tags could also help a consumer identify whether an apparel item is a legitimate luxury shirt or a counterfeit, Statler said. Once in a store, there is no need for an employee to use an expensive RFID reader or bar code scanner. For several hundred dollars, a store can be sprinkled with a few Bluetooth beacons to track thousands of Wiliot tags, Statler said. “The retailer can have an up-to-the-second view of not just what’s is in the store but where it’s in the store and when it has been picked up and then can also track who buys it,” he added. The way that Avery and Wiliot will work together is for the Glendale company to leverage its expertise in manufacturing and to help in having large brands adopt the other company’s smart labeling technology. “Ultimately, the ability to combine disruptive technology and game changing technology with the ability to deliver that solution at scale is a powerful combination between Wiliot and Avery Dennison,” Winograd said. “We can learn a lot and gain a lot by working with them in the production and distribution of our product,” Statler added. Privacy issue For more than 10 years, privacy advocates have raised warning about the use of RFID chips in tags for clothing and other consumer items. In California, lawmakers took up the Identity Information Protection Act of 2007 in Sacramento. The bill, which would have regulated the use of RFID on state-issued documentation such as driver’s licenses, school identification cards or library cards, was passed by the Senate but never made it out of the Assembly. To protect the data transmitted by the tags, Wiliot has made it encrypted and allows consumers to opt in to have their data interpreted and used by a company, Statler said. It is critical for the semiconductor maker to do that because while not everybody has an RFID reader, they do have access to a Bluetooth reader in their phone, he said. “That is the strength of this, but it means having to manage security and privacy very carefully,” Statler added. “If we don’t do that, it could be something that works against the brands rather than for the brands.” Tim Zimmerman, a vice president with information technology research company Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., who researches the Internet of Things and network infrastructure industries, said that one solution to the privacy issue is to put in a kill switch that is activated when an energy field is generated. “One implementation is to sever antenna so there can be no additional communication outside the retail environment,” he explained. The Wiliot tag is still in development. The company demonstrated it last month at National Retail Federation 2019: Retail’s Big Show in New York, which Statler called a major milestone. “We will be in mass production at the end of the year,” he added. Globally, sales of smart labels reached $4.7 billion in 2016 and is projected to reach $22.6 billion by 2026, according to a report from two years ago from market intelligence and consulting firm Future Market Insights, in Valley Cottage, N.Y. Out of the five smart label technology types identified in the report, RFID received a closer look and its market is expected to grow to $13 billion by 2026. “Demand for RFID smart labels has been continuously growing for the last few years, primarily due to increasing counterfeit incidents during shipping and distribution,” the report said. No batteries Wiliot’s tag is powered not by a battery but by recycling radio frequency energy – the signals from Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cell phones. Those signals tend to be abundant but also very faint and weak. “All of those have the potential to generate energy that can be used by the Wiliot technology to capture and create a passive consumer experience and connected consumer products from end-to-end in a supply chain, all the way to the home,” Winograd said. Zimmerman, of Gartner, said that an RFID tag that collects energy from the ambient environment is an emerging trend in the market. But, he added, RFID in general and especially in passive tags have used and collected energy to power tags. “This is an extension of that that basically says, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of energy in the environment, let me harvest it,’” Zimmerman said. The type of tag developed by Wiliot eliminates of the biggest issues in implementations that Zimmerman refers to as the “chief battery changing officer.” “Because when you start getting into hospitals and large environments where you have thousands of beacons, even if you have the management infrastructure that tells you the battery is low, you still have to send someone out there to change it,” he added. Wiliot is a startup founded just two years ago. Winograd did not disclose how much of the $30 million Avery contributed to the funding. In contrast, Avery Dennison has been around for more than 80 years and is already a leader in radio frequency identification tags. The publicly traded company employs about 30,000 workers. For the third quarter, the company reported an adjusted net income of $128 million ($1.45 a share) on revenue of $1.8 billion. Winograd said the goal of Avery’s venture capital efforts is about the technologies it has or doesn’t have that can cause disruption. “For us, it is about getting out into the ecosystem, finding the latest in disruptive technologies and innovation, new business models and new segments we can bring technology to,” Winograd added.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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