Last October, only weeks before Graph Expo 08, Chicago hosted a very different trade show, EPC Global, a gathering of electronic printed circuit suppliers and manufacturers. Though most commercial printers probably passed on this event, EPC Global provided the backdrop for Silicon Valley-based Kovio Inc. to unveil a genuinely revolutionary new method of producing low-cost flexible printed integrated circuits (PICs). Kovio’s key innovation is the development of silicon ink and other inks that it is using to produce the inlays for RFID tags via digital inkjet printing.
Joseph Jacobson, a professor at MIT who co-founded Kovio, as well as E-Ink and Codon Technologies, is credited with the initial concept behind the new process and technology.
“When Kovio was founded, we contacted ink makers and they didn’t have silicon ink,” said Vik Pavate, Kovio’s vice president of business development. “They looked at us like we were crazy. So we were forced to invent it for ourselves. We also had to develop eight other types of inks to make silicon transistors, and all are equally important in the process.”
He added that Kovio’s new technology has attracted the attention of several key investors, including Japanese company Toppan Forms. “Toppan can do just about anything but print a silicon chip, so this is a huge opportunity for them,” Pavate said.
Low-Cost RFID Tags
Despite the push from monster retailers like Wal-Mart—which has required that its vendors use RFID tags—most retailers and other consumer product manufacturers have been slow to adopt RFID. Conventional technology has two significant disadvantages: production time and cost. First, as most commercial printers know, time-to-market has become an important consideration for both product manufacturers and retailers. Yet designing and producing RFID tags for a given application can require up to six months. Second, conventional RFID tags cost generally from $0.12 to $0.15 each or more, a cost that can be prohibitive for labeling individual products vs. warehouse pallets or other large shipping containers.
“The first barcodes were used with Wrigley’s gum,” Pavate noted. “Wrigley’s was selected to prove that barcodes were affordable and could reduce check-out times by allowing for scanning purchases.”
At $0.15 each, conventional RFID tags aren’t practical for chewing gum or most other consumer products. However, Pavate said the digitally printed tags will be available for $0.1 to $0.3 each. Designs can be very small, and they’re printed on thin, flexible foils. All of these features will considerably expand their applications and usefulness.
In addition, as in offset printing, high-volume production can rationalize the cost of conventional RFID tags, but puts RFID tags out of reach for low-volume applications. Digitally printed tags allow for low-volume orders, a turnaround of only days, and make changes and upgrades possible.
Pavate noted, too, that at current prices for conventional RFID tags used at the pallet and case level, manufacturers expect demand to reach volumes in the billions, particularly if they can be produced for as low at $0.5 each. But at Kovio’s $0.1 to $0.3 price range for digitally printed tags, he projected consumer demand to reach the trillions. For example, Pavate foresees endless potential for what he calls “item-level intelligence,” including mobile digital interactions.
“You can scan the tag with a cell phone’s digital camera,” he said. “You’ll be able to interact with products in the store to see if they contain ingredients like peanuts, or to find out about promotions or discounts. Any new product coding must have strong consumer value. If a retailer or a manufacturer puts a $0.1 tag on a $15 product, it really can add value to that product.”
RFID tags are often described as “multiple level barcodes,” and they operate on a similar principle as standard barcodes—providing product information in digitized format. However, RFIDs can store much more information, such as product origination and delivery points, expiration dates for perishables, and more. They can be factory-programmed, and some can accept additional data in use. They consist primarily of a chip to store information, and antenna to transmit it to an external reader. In large shipping operations and warehouse facilities, these readers can be mounted on a frame, and when a pallet or truck of RFID-tagged items passes through, the readers can identify multiple tags simultaneously and store the information in an inventory database.
RFIDs come in two general categories. Active RFIDs include a battery, and serve as a virtual beacon of information, while passive RFIDs rely on the tag reader to generate the power required to transmit the data contained on the chip. Passive tags are often referred to “transponders” and the tag readers as “interrogators.”
Kovio’s inkjet printed RFID tags are passive, with a HF (high frequency) 13.56 MHz integrated circuit. They can store up 128 bits of read-only, factory-programmed memory. By contrast, a Class C barcode provides only 48 bits of memory. Kovio’s RFIDs also comply with the ISO 14443A standard, so they can be utilized with existing RFID readers.
While Kovio is the only manufacturer of silicon-type PICs, other manufacturers, most notably German firm PolyIC GmbH, have been developing organic-type PICs. These are fabricated of plastics, and PolyIC has had success producing them on gravure presses. The PICs themselves have been used for smart cards and in ID tags, but RFID applications are not yet ready to market and remain under development. Furthermore, industry experts have noted that organic electronics have technical limitations in their speed and accuracy compared to silicon-based devices.
Yet another company, OrganicID, part of Weyerhaeuser’s Forestry Products Group, also successfully printed a high-frequency RFID tag. It, too, will be targeted at the item-level consumer marketplace, with applications for smart cards, library book labels, passports, laundry tags, and many more applications, the company said. However, the OrganicID product is not yet on the market and no date has been set for its release.
And Green, Too
Another important factor Kovio and Pavate emphasize is that digitally printed integrated circuits are much kinder to the environment than conventional technologies.
“Silicon fabrication ‘clean rooms’ are about the dirtiest rooms you can imagine,” he said. “They use a lot of gases in fabrication, and are extremely energy-inefficient. Only 2 percent of the raw material is used in the final product. We’ve been called resource hogs. Digital printing circuits used only about 5 percent of the chemicals used in conventional production.”
While Pavate predicts a rosy future for digitally printed integrated circuits, they are not yet available. Kovio’s technology is being developed for use in smart cards, and RFID tags are just now in alpha testing with Toppan Forms and perhaps other customers. The company has promised to have the new tags on the market by the end of this year, but because the technology is so new, it may take even longer before consumers begin to see them in retail stores.
The new technology has been widely regarded as a breakthrough that just may revolutionize RFID tag usage, as well as the use of PICs in other applications. Kovio has won several awards for its innovations.
Jeanette Clinkunbroomer is a frequent contributor to Printing News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.