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History of Supertag ®

Supertag ® is the name given to a multiple article scanning low cost RFID technology developed to scan multiple articles in a supermarket.

The registered trademark Supertag was owned by CSIR (South Africa) in 1994 and might since have been sold to another party. There is no connection between Trolley Scan and the ownership of the trademark Supertag.

Supertag technology was invented by Mike Marsh and his team while working for the South African Government funded research group named CSIR. Mike Marsh went on to start the private company Trolley Scan but was not allowed to use the Supertag technology, and so he invented the Trolleyponder technology.

In January 1994 the world was surprised to discover that a South African development was likely to change the future retailing and logistic systems. Prior to this announcement, other RFID systems had been developed in South Africa, but none with the impact of this development.

Prior to November 1990, the South African Government Research laboratories of the CSIR in the Division of Microelectronics and Communications Technology, had been approached by a motor manufacture to find out if it was possible to have a very low cost RF transponder to be used for just-in-time manufacture, the restrictions being that it would need to withstand the heat of the paint shop while being very cheap. This led to the development of a transponder that repeatedly broadcast its identity and used a "backscatter modulation" method. Such a transponder was built using discrete components and extensive testing carried out to detect such a transponder passing at speed mounted on a car.

This concept was later modified to provide a design for detecting the identity of miners working deep in the South African goldmines. Here the rebroadcast was delayed by a random backoff timer based on the prionciple that when identifying a few tags in a zone at a time, all the tags would have some transmission time when they were not jammed by other tags. This principle is valid if there are only a limited number of sources in the beam at a time.

None of these concepts could handle many transponders at the same time, mainly because the tags all respond on a single frequency, many talk at the same time as they are free-running and do not have onboard receivers that are able to hear if other tags are talking at any instant.

------------------------------------ Supertag® protocol was developed by accident by Mike Marsh. While attending a management strategy meeting in Pretoria at a place called "Aarbeidsaamheid" in November 1990, he suddenly realised how a simple protocol could be implimented that would allow any number of tags to be read. At that stage the development team was not working on this problem, but just by chance stumbled across the solution.

January 1991 the first patents filed.

Mike headed the Mining Systems Programme involved in developing electronic detonators and mine communication systems. He had a staff that were experts at taking concepts and making products from the ideas. Over the next three years a further three key patents were filed.

October 1992 Initial discussions with UK company about commercialising concept.

October 1993 Contract to commercialise concept signed with BTG(UK) .

January 1994 The electronic identification system appears to the world as a demonstration of a supermarket trolley being read in a supermarket in a couple of seconds without unpacking. Demonstration shown on 2000 TV stations and 5000 newspapers {The Famous trolley} photograph
{The Trolley scanner}
{Inventor with demo tag}
{Part of the development team at the Supermarket}
{Closeup of the transponder}

Over the next four months 1500 companies contact about the technology. Up to 3 technical teams visit per day to study the technology.

April 1994 Mike Marsh leaves the development group to start his own small engineering consulting company (RFID Technologies) after nearly 20 years of service. The former development team at CSIR that had four other major success like this identification system, broken up and merged with other programmes.

May 1994 ICL announces that it has taken an option to a license

October 1994 Third license option has been signed

February 1995 Fourth license option to major industrial company

March 1995 Mining systems programme finally closed down and all staff left relocated.

September 1995 Division at CSIR renamed to Division of Communications and Information Networking Technology.

People involved in developing the electronic identification system

Members of the TEAM that made RFID possible and gave the world a demonstration of a trolley
Mining Systems Programme
Mike Marsh
Inventor, development team leader, programme manager and negotiator
Andre Lenarcik
Developer of RF systems initially for the vehicle project, and then for the trolley project. Designer of antenna systems, and the RF components of the transponder.
Clinton van Zyl

Designer of the microprocessor and receiver components for the reader. Involved in the initial testing of the vehicle system and later of the trolley system.(Currently in the UK) Andries van Schalkwyk

Built the phase lock loop and receiver components and assembled many tags and the demo system. Martin Oosthuizen

Built the microprocessor components of the receiver, many tags and assembled the demo system.
Paul Mekisich

Built the transmitters together with the notch filters for rejecting interference.
Martin Walker

Built the initial discrete component transponder. (Currently in Canada)
Werner Bremer

Modelled radiation patterns for inside metal container (Currently in Johannesburg) Trish Ritter
Wrote the software used for the trolley demo till.
Paw Paw Cabrita

Built the initial wooden trolley system, and the mechanical components of the scanning system that was used in the Pick n Pay demo. (Currently in Johannesburg) Jack Marx

Made the mechanical components of the receivers and power supplies of the vehicle and Supertag system.(Currently in Randburg) ... and about another five members of the programme
IC Design Programme
Hendrik van Eeden
Converted the original discrete design to a low voltage MOS process in a foundry in Switzerland. Wrote a software simulator to show initial simulation regarding error rate. (Currently in Pretoria)

Lourence Cronje Assisted in conversion of discrete design to first multichip implimentation.
Roy Atkins
Took over non-digital design aspects and preparation of specifications after key staff left.
Microelectronic Applications Programme
Mark Carson (Currently in Pretoria), Gideon Gouws ,Mario Marais
Collectively developed a method of attaching integrated circuits to cheap antenna substrates in volume applications.
CSIR Information Services
Murray Dell
Comprehensive mathematical model of the performance of a group of tags
Supertag is the registered trademark of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research

Trolleyponder was not a flash in the pan but was a predictable goal as an RFID Technologies' staff member had been responsible for similar major breakthrough 7 years earlier.
Further since its formation in 1994 as a private company, RFID Technologies had focussed on bringing the benefits of RFID to the man in the street, firstly by means of their industry acclaimed Transponder News, a WWW newspaper on RFID developments in general and providing over 18000 pages of information per month to readers worldwide, and secondly via their specialised consulting services that advanced the state of the world's knowledge.

In January 1994, a demonstration of a supermarket trolley containing 35 items and being scanned in a couple of seconds was shown around the world on television. This system was based on a patent entitled "Electronic Identification System " claiming priority from 1991. This system had been developed in a South African government research laboratory by the Mining Systems programme. The inventor of the system, and the person who lead the development and commercialisation up to the demonstration was Mike Marsh (a founder of RFID Technologies)

This event was very significant in the future of RFID techniques, as it shattered some previously thought insurmountable obstacles, and allowed a vision of the mass application of RFID systems to become closer to realisation.

The demonstration showed that:

  • It would be possible to make very cheap RF transponders. The transponders could consist of simply a mass produced integrated circuit attached to a printed antenna.
  • Despite being a relatively simple transponder, reading ranges of 4 meters were practical.
  • A previous block to the delivery of cheap medium range transponders was overcome, in that multiple tags could be read at the same time. This feature had stumped development teams for the past 20 years and became one of the most significant achievements of the development. The protocol enabling multiple articles to be read at the same time brought about additional features in that the protocol could handle multiple articles at the same time even if they had the same identity - hence the term electronic counting (e.g. 12 boxes of 1kg soap powder)
  • The protocol proved to be very robust, with low error rates (1 in 10000) and even allowed Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) features to be included.
  • Scanning rates averaging 20 items a second and 100's of items at any one time.

  • This technology was patented and was marketed by the South African Govenment under their trademark Supertag

    Images from Press launch

    Despite many companies(a few thousand) realising the potential of such a product and contacting the developers, a few significant events happened that caused the momentum of the project to drop, resulting in the technology still not being commercially available 60 months after demonstration despite seven licensees announcing their involvement.

    Not least amoung these were:

  • The breakup of the development team by the management of the S.A. Government laboratory resulting in the majority of the team members leaving the laboratory or the project.
  • The critical stage at which the breakup occured, while still a concept demonstrator and not yet a documented system for transfer to industry.
  • This demonstration showed the potential for such technology and that the vision could be realised.

    In 1994 Mike Marsh had left the employ of the South African government and had started with Trevor Hodson the company RFID Technologies CC to assist manufacturers with technology transfer of the scanning technology.

    In 1995 they started the company Trolley Scan (Pty) Ltd with the long term goal of improving their earlier inventions and further reducing the manufacturing costs associated with electronic scanning of trolleys.
    In 1998 Trolley Scan filed the Trolleyponder® patents, an entirely new protocol that results in simpler, smaller and therefore cheaper transponder systems than what was previously available. Trolley Scan have offered this technology to all companies world wide who wish to become involved in RFID transponders, and have also set up a Trolleyponder Development Group where licensees, component suppliers and users can interact to shorten the delivery times. Trolleyponder information can be found at http://trolleyscan.com.

    In the next few years, market forces will ensure that it reaches the market place. With the food sector needing volumes in the order of ten to the power of thirteen per annum, the technology will have a major impact on the semiconductor, assembly and logistics industry.

    Further reading
    For those interested in the current developments in the RFID industry, have a look at the technology journal entitled
    Transponder News, an electronic newspaper on developments in radio identification systems with a database of patents, developers and activities in the RFID Industry

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