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RFID Digs In

Founded in 1995 in Trento, in northern Italy, Tiomed is a medical-technology company that specializes in monitoring and identification devices for hospitals, focusing mainly on critical procedures like blood transfusion and drug distribution. When the company, which sells devices to hospitals across Italy and Spain, was developing its new authentication system known as BASIC (for (Bedside Automatic System for Identification and Communication), it needed a way to both transport data with medical devices and to alter (or lock down) the information.

Tiomed engineers also wanted to be able to feed the information -- whether for prescriptions, procedures, or patient ID -- into hospital databases via a WiFi-network backhaul.

After searching the Web for RFID companies, Tiomed settled on SkyeTek, a Westminster, Colo.-based startup that produces hardware and software for small, inexpensive "embedded" RFID systems.

"Initially our target was only to know what the current state of the art in the RFID world was," says Marco Rossi, Tiomed's IT manager, "because we thought we had the in-house knowledge necessary to develop our own RFID reader module.

"But we have learned that to have all the necessary tech skills to do this, doesn't mean it's the most convenient approach."

Combining a traditional wireless backhaul system with small RFID readers and tags embedded in the medical equipment itself, the Tiomed represents the next wave of RFID deployments, beyond the straightforward supply-chain applications that have grabbed headlines over the last year. In fact, SkyeTek CEO Rob Balgley refers to his company's products as not applications at all but "features" that are contained within companies' equipment and processes. (See Users Signal RFID Intentions.)

"We see two trends in RFID right now," explains Balgley. "The more familiar one is as an application, and the most obvious example is in the supply chain, with RFID as a dedicated application doing specific things -- in this case managing a supply chain of goods or assets.

"The other is as an embedded technology or a feature. As an application, RFID makes up 100 percent of the value of that application. In this case the RFID aspect is a smaller percentage -- as little as 15-20 percent."

The examples range from the mundane -- such as paper towel condiment dispensers in which the RFID tag is disposable and the reader is a part of the equipment itself -- to the quite sophisticated, such as Tiomed's BASIC system, which prevents common hospital errors by making positive identifications of patients and products or procedures they're receiving. Such pervasive RFID, Balgley believes, has a far bigger market potential than add-on supply chain applications because the cost of the RFID technology is contained within the cost of the equipment or system. Unlike big RFID providers like Intermec, he claims, SkyeTek is creating "disruptive pricing models," often at 40 to 70 percent less than conventional RFID applications.

Last week SkyeTek announced five new reader products in its Advanced Universal Reader Architecture (AURA) line, designed specifically for the embedded RFID market, including what it describes as the world's smallest HF reader.

"What we've started to see happening is that embedded RFID is creating unique functionalities in the existing vertical markets that we serve," says Balgley. 'The reader will change its shape and form because the technology is so deeply embedded in the product itself."

While it's not a wholly new concept, embedded RFID systems have gathered steam over the last year. Last summer, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) announced that it would begin embedding RFID middleware from ConnecTerra, which has since been purchased by BEA Systems, into its networking hardware. The networking giant has also taken a stake in ThingMagic, which is developing "networked" RFID solutions that integrate RFID data into company's back-end systems.

"In our mind, [an RFID] reader is very much like a router," ThingMagic CEO Tom Grant told RFID Journal last fall. "It's managing data and passing it through the network infrastructure for manipulation. Sometimes that happens right there at the read point, and sometimes it happens further up into the IT infrastructure."

As for Tiomed, it plans to drive RFID even deeper into its processes and products.

"We are developing a new desktop reader, called 'the Tagger,' in the form of a little mouse-pad with a USB interface," says Rossi. "It will be used to easily read smart labels that we put on paper documents. Thanks to SkyeTek, we only have to take care of all the common aspects of such a project, apart from the RFID core -- not bad for me!"

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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