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.”