Radio Frequency Identification RFID is a booming business, with much of interest to the printing industry, but not in quite the way that was originally envisaged. About 30 billion cases arrive at major retailers every year and it was thought that most of those cases would be RFID tagged under retailer mandates by now, mainly to reduce stockouts. However, whereas the power of Western retailers meant that such a ruse worked well with anti-theft tags, this time the cost is far higher and there has been much dragging of feet. Even those consumer goods companies that have been mandated are only tagging a few percent of their output and that at a cumulative loss of over $100 million, aggravated by technical problems and over-specification.
Another setback for RFID has been the Food and Drug Administration in the US damping its previous enthusiasm for RFID on pharmaceutical packages for anticounterfeiting purposes, where it had wanted it in place in the USA by 2007. That could have led to up to 15 billion tagged prescription drug packages yearly being tagged in the West alone but today only Viagra™, Trizivir™ and a few other drugs are RFID tagged and then only for the US market, it all adding up to only a few million packages yearly.
So called e-pedigree is being progressed and the FDA still wants RFID as an option in achieving this but a killer here has been the lack of a standard. It is like anti-theft tags: there are three incompatible types in use, though in this case there is some hope that the FDA will make a decision in two years after the present phase. Meanwhile, in Europe and the USA, 2D barcodes are starting to be used extensively to give the required unique ID to every pack, this working through secure databases to give "e-pedigree" of origin and history. However, barcodes are easily copied and subject to obscuration, misorientation, damage and other reading difficulties and this means that drugs will not be checked for genuineness automatically at high speed or even very often compared with the situation if RFID was used.
Meanwhile, drug company Cephalon is an international biopharmaceutical company that has deployed at RFID solution from OAT Systems (a company recently acquired by Checkpoint Systems) for serialised shipment container tracking, extending its SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure's reach to operational processes and workflows. Cephalon has been testing RFID technology for three years to help improve supply chain efficiency and visibility, and its RFID-based serialised container tracking, suitable for e-pedigree, will "help the company to combat counterfeiting as well as to improve process execution."
Printed smart blisterpacks
RFID-enabled blisterpacks and plastic bottles are increasingly used in drug trials that record which pill was removed and when but the global market for that is only a few million packs yearly, a given trial involving no more than 30,000 packs, the average being about 10,000. It is an interesting application because the sensors are usually printed using silver ink, as are the connecting patterns and the RFID antenna and later the batteries and transistors will be printed.
Mainly a booming industry
Fortunately RFID is booming in just about every other sector. Having tripled in value in the last two years, the RFID market will quintuple in the next ten years by value. Some suppliers, such as Avery Dennison, are going vertical in not only making the naked RFID inlays but converting them into printed labels. Avery Dennison recently bought the giant converter Paxar, for $1.2 billion, which converts the RFID labels for the world's largest adopter Marks and Spencer for item level apparel - soon to be 350 million yearly - and that means it will now do the whole label - RFID inlay and conversion. It will be well positioned to serve the 60 organisations worldwide that are rolling out RFID labels on apparel, some of them being in the form of the stitched designer labels and used for both anticounterfeiting and stock control and others being simply swing tags for stock control. About 20 billion RFID labels will be fitted to apparel in 2018.
Printing highest volume RFID then printing other electronics
For high volume RFID, such as replacing a significant proportion of the ten trillion barcodes printed yearly with RFID, the silicon chip in the label must be replaced with something printed, not just the antenna. Of course, printed RFID is only part of an emerging $300 billion business in printing many forms of electronics and electrics in very high volume. Many players are therefore broadening their thrust. For example, Leonhard Kurz, a German company employing 3000 people, now develops RFID tag antennas but it also develops organic solar cells. It has a joint investment in PolyIC with Siemens, where PolyIC is developing reel to reel printed RFID and with Konarka in developing organic photovoltaics.
Much larger volumes of RFID labels
Most RFID tags take the form of labels nowadays, not the plastic mouldings used in the past. Starting with RFID labels and inserts with just the antenna printed, there is now steady progress towards tagging four billion items of air baggage and freight each year and 70 million passports a year are now fitted where the high security chips mean that these inserts are $5 each not the giveaway price of ten cents for labels on pallets and cases. In four cities of China, a total of about 40 million books will be RFID labelled this year and there are many more applications like that.
Large order value
Two companies are servicing half billion dollar orders this year for RFID tags and systems, one military and the other for non-stop road tolling and technical breakthroughs are coming thick and fast. For example, it is now clear that the silicon chip in traditional RFID tags will never be supplied profitably ie sustainably below a price of a few cents yet the whole tag must drop below one cent if hundreds of billions are to be sold. Fortunately, printed transistor circuits with printed antennas attached are being developed by 360 organisations, partly for the new printed RFID. They are variously made by flexography, gravure, inkjet and screen printing and often combinations of these for the different layers. As yet, this is in the laboratory, though several companies say they will be selling products by the end of 2008.
Printing transistors to replace the chip
Kovio ink jet prints nano-silicon transistors reel to reel on stainless steel foil with thousand of these transistors per RFID tag. It says it can meet the world's most popular RFID specifications ISO 14443/ ISO 15693 as used in library books, passports, drug packages and RFID cards and tickets. It will launch these shortly as standard transport tickets. There are 20 billion tickets bought in the world every year and the Chinese National Railway is trialling 120 million chip-based tickets with a view to replacing its three billion rail tickets every year as the price comes down. Kovio says it can achieve 80% cost reduction on the RFID chip now and 90% reduction in two years. IDTechEx forecasts that, If printed tags drop below one cent, about 500 billion will be fitted to consumer goods in 2018.
Inkjet favoured but not necessarily forever
Early experiments with printing of electronics and electrics tended to use screen printing and it is still used for membrane keyboards, laminar batteries and capacitors and some RFID antennas. Resistors and conductors in battery testers on batteries have now moved on to volume production with gravure etc because they sell in billions. Inkjet is now the favourite printing technology for printed electronics because it conserves the expensive ink, is instantly reprogrammable, tolerates uneven surfaces, is undemanding in ink rheology, particulates and so on. People variously use it reel to reel to make photo-detector arrays (Nanoident), solar cells (Nanosolar, G24innovations), sensors (GSI) and transistors (ORFID, Organic ID, Plastic Logic and Toppan Printing in the laboratory). However, none of the proponents are fully hooked on it because its resolution, speed, area and other aspects are suboptimal for many electronic and electrical applications. Other printing technologies are therefore being explored including wider use of flexography, acoustically focussed aerosol jetting by Optomec and gravure.
More about all forms of printed electronics
Those wanting to explore the bigger picture should attend Printed Electronics USA December 3-4 San Francisco www.idtechex.com/peUSA where companies such as Northrop Grumman, Fuji Film, Nokia, Kodak, InkTec of Korea, and BASF of Germany will present their breakthroughs alongside many universities and company start-ups. Printed Electronics Asia is October 8-9 in Tokyo with Kovio, Sony, Hitachi Chemical, Toppan Forms and Hewlett Packard in the lineup. This event even has fascinating tours of Dai Nippon Printing, The University of Tokyo, Sony and Toppan Printing to see relevant work that you would be unlikely to access if you applied on your own. IDTechEx has the inside track.
Most of the trends in RFID will be fully explored at the IDTechEx conference "RFID Europe" in the legendary Cambridge University in Cambridge UK on September 30-October 1. Cambridge University researches both inorganic and organic printed transistors and many other printed and potentially printed electronic components - even lasers. At this event, visits to local centres of excellence include Conductive Inkjet Technology and innovative RFID user Marshall Aerospace at Cambridge Airport. See www.idtechex.com/RFIDEurope.
Top image source: PolyIC