Hutt antenna maker a leader in the RFID ecosystem
Almost hiding in the heart of Lower Hutt is a globally significant player in the ever-expanding Internet of Things (IoT) world.
Times-7's specialist component, an antenna, plays a crucial role in helping identify, locate and authenticate billions of objects a year using Ultra High Frequency (UHF) Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).
These antennas identify and track RFID tags, attached to items as varied as suitcases to vaccines, cups to computers.
The 13-year-old company is part of the global RAIN RFID industry, where the use of billions of RAIN RFID tags are growing over 25% a year. Times-7’s fixed antennas can individually identify thousands of tags a second (if required) and allow its customers to manage supply chains in a faster, more accurate and efficient manner.
The privately-owned Alicetown company’s CEO Jos Kunnen says the RAIN RFID system (incorporating RFID tags, antennas and readers) can be described as the driving the “Internet of everyday Things”.
Because each non-powered inexpensive tag can be electronically programmed with unique information, “it enables every item the tag is attached to, to have a ‘digital personality,’” he says.
“It is part of a new industrial revolution called ‘Industry 4.0’, where everything about a supply chain and the products within it can be monitored and tracked throughout its life cycle.
“The tag, our antenna and a reader allows all the information about where an item has been and what has been done to it can be automatically updated and understood.”
Global alliance strategy
As a critical part of its current and future strategy, Times-7 is a member of the RAIN RFID Alliance - a global industry organisation promoting the universal adoption of a standard UHF RFID technology across many industry verticals.
Times-7’s evolution to focus on one component of RFID technology (antennas) has evolved from the company’s beginnings in the early noughties.
At that time, Times-7 developed running and cycling race timing systems. These systems allowed every competitor, rather than just elite athletes, in large sports events to have their individual performance recorded.
Then Times-7 provided a complete package from tags to antennas to readers. With a tag attached to a bike or shoes, and competitors crossing a mat (with its embedded antenna) at the start and finish, their completion times could be automatically recorded. The Times-7 mat antennas were the differentiating and high performing part of the system and many other companies requested to buy them for use in their timing systems.
Over the years Times-7 expanded its antenna portfolio to cover a broader range of industry applications and developed a reputation for having the best antennas. As these were only ordered in low volumes, they tended to be more expensive and not deployed where a “commodity” antenna was sufficient.
Just over three years ago, the decision was made to develop new lower-cost antennas that could compete in the general purpose application market. While the average price received for their antennas has dropped by 50% over this time, along with increasing volume, better productivity and manufacturing capabilities, the company has thrived and grown strongly.
Under such a strategy, Times-7’s major B2B customers are RFID system integrators - companies providing a complete identification, tracking and information solution for their own customers.
Such a niche focus enabled Times-7 to be now globally recognised as one of, if not the, best and major RAIN RFID antenna manufacturers in the world.
At the same time, because it is not directly competing with RFID system integrators, but instead is a supplier of a vital component of the system, Times-7 has a clear and crucial key role in its part of the Internet of Things.
“We’re a business to business company,” says Jos.
“We’re small, nimble, responsive and can currently ship a typical customer order in less than seven days”.
“We can often answer a question, demonstrate a product, and provide a solution before some of our competitors have even woken up.”
Large value-add to local and overseas components
A strong point of difference is that the products are designed, engineered and manufactured onsite, using a mix of locally produced components such as plastic injection mouldings and aluminium fabrication, as well as imported integrated circuits. The antenna format and the radio frequency beam shape and conformity are other important factors. Typically, Times-7’s antennas are of a flat, thin, robust design, varying in size from 80mm to 1200mm length, with excellent Radio Frequency properties.
“There’s a lot of knowhow and added-value in our antennas,” Jos says.
“They’re relatively difficult to copy, and though we know some people have tried to pirate reproduce our antennas, there’s a lot of engineering and physics which isn’t obvious. We take commodity components and add our IP to make antennas with high value.
“Our secret sauce is our intellectual knowledge, team experience and engineering and manufacturing capability.”
This recognition of specialising in what Times-7 does well and the antennas’ deeply embedded knowledge, has seen the company’s IP strategy move away from patenting, and more to being the best provider of products and knowledge for its customers that it can be.
Times-7’s partners often come up with particular challenges and problems, and the company takes particular pride in providing practical, cost-effective answers using its antennas.
“I’ve encouraged our people to ‘think outside the antenna’,” says Jos.
“It is part of the reason our own customers are our best reference for others looking for RFID antennas.”
He estimates the company supplies a significant and growing share of the total UHF RFID antenna market, resulting in several million dollars of turnover a year.
He envisages the company will grow significantly over the next few years - especially given that the number of tags being attached to products is growing exponentially.
From a New Zealand point of view, he’d like to see more collaboration between companies who have a global focus for their products. The way that RFID tags may be able to add new functionality to these NZ designed products is something which we are keen to explore and help other exporters with says Jos.
For a small company at the bottom of the world, Times-7 has been successful in being able to look, act and deliver as appearing to be bigger than it actually is.
“We have good technology, good intellectual property and are increasingly getting the message out about the quality of our products and how we can seamlessly integrate into other people’s systems,” says Jos.
“It is really exciting to be globally significant in our particular niche, and if there’s a call to action for other high tech New Zealand manufacturers, it’s that it is quite possible to be successful from here.”
(Picture - Times-7 CEO Jos Kuneen with the company's flagship RFID antenna)