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.