Printed Electronics Brings Big Opportunities

Printing RFID (Radio Frequency identification) tags is an emerging technology offering new opportunities for printers. At GRAPH EXPO 2010, RFID and printed electronics are given special treatment in an exclusive show floor feature called Future Print, under the PackPrint umbrella. The exhibit space gives print providers the opportunity to understand the technologies and learn what it takes to integrate them into their product mix.

RFID tags are created by building several alternating layers of conductive, semi-conductive and insulating materials in specific order. The passage of current between these layers at specific points, voltages, and manners is what makes the circuitry work. Print is the only way to produce RFID devices for pennies rather than dollars.

It’s not an easy task, as it requires the creation of radio components—transistor, capacitor, resistor and an antenna—with ink. Very specialized ink and great quality control are necessary. A tiny pinhole in the ink surface can destroy the circuit. Printed RFIDs are generally created with silk-screening, gravure or flexographic processes. Offset has not been terribly successful, though it’s still being considered.

 

RFID in a nutshell

RFID allows the same types of identifying information found in barcodes to be transmitted electronically. Most RFID tags contain at least two parts. One is an integrated circuit for storing information and processing the radio frequency (RF) signal. The second is an antenna for receiving and transmitting the signal. The beauty of RFID is that the information can be processed automatically as items come within range of a receiver. No manual scanning is required. Data can be gathered within enclosed structures like buildings, warehouses, trucks or trains that might block GPS signals. Once gathered, the data can then be transmitted over satellite connections anywhere in the world, allowing real-time tracking of any item.

Additionally, RFID tags have the potential of being updated on the fly. Since they are really integrated circuits (IC), in some cases they can be reprogrammed as needed.

There are generally three types of RFID tags: active RFID tags, which contain a battery and can transmit signals autonomously, passive RFID tags, which have no battery and require an external source to provoke signal transmission, and battery assisted passive (BAP) RFID tags, which require an external source to wake up, but have more capabilities and greater range.

Printed RFID took a jump forward in November 2007, when California-based Kovio introduced a thin-film transistor (TFT) printed with silicon ink on a flexible stainless steel foil substrate. The transistor is a component of an IC, which contains multiple TFTs that control various functions on the chip. The process uses silicon-based inks to print integrated circuits, sensors and displays. The use of digital printing technology facilitates product customization and rapid time to market.

 

Applications

RFID tags are primarily used today for tracking packaging to provide real-time inventory of manufactured products, but innovative users have already put it to some unusual uses.

RFID is big in brand protection, incorporating tamper-evident, anti-counterfeiting, anti-theft, or track-and-trace technology into a product or package to prevent or limit damage from brand attacks. The global market for brand protection is expected to be $6.7 billion in 2009, according to a new study by Pira International.

Other innovative uses:

• A Minnesota ice cream parlor uses RFID to track the inventory of its specialty-flavored ice cream. The signals automatically update signage in the store, and can even initiate an email campaign when a new flavor is in stock.

• Mercy Hospital, a 271-bed hospital in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, installed an RFID-enabled touchless hand-washing system in December 2009. RFID signals logged 10,000 hand washes in May 2010, following six months of operation, leading to a significant reduction in hospital-acquired infections.

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