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Pieces of the Puzzle, II

The coalescing of the supply side of the market continues to gather momentum.
Dec 02, 2002Dec. 2, 2002 - Back in September, I wrote an opinion piece explaining how many of the elements needed to create low-cost RFID tracking systems were coming together (see Pieces of the Puzzle). New or established companies were moving into the market to supply not just low-cost tags, but readers, software for managing the data, and enterprise systems for using the data.

That coalescing of the supply side of the market continues to gather momentum. A couple of large semiconductor companies recently announced plans to mass-produce low-cost chips. STMicroelectronics is working with Alien (see STMicro Teams Up with Alien), and Philips Semiconductor is developing its own vibratory assembly process to produce millions of low-cost chips.

One big question remained: How would the price of RFID tags get to a level where they could be put on everything? Clearly, no one is going to put a 5-cent chip on a 25-cent pack of gum. Tags have to be a penny or less to be used on everything. This week's feature provides what may well be the answer. Researchers at Infineon, the large German chipmaker, have developed a method for creating thin-film, plastic microchips that will likely make concepts like "smart labels," "RFID tags" and even "chips" obsolete. The integrated circuit will be printed right on ordinary packaging at high-speeds during the commercial printing process (see Breakthrough on 1-Cent RFID Tag).

Two years ago, the idea that we could put an RFID tag on a pack of gum and track it from production to purchase seemed totally preposterous. Suddenly, it not only seems possible; it seems likely within a few years. Dr. Guenter Schmid, head Infineon's polymer activities, told RFID Journal that his technology could be commercialized within five years. With a little luck and strong demand, the technology might be available even sooner.

Think about that for a minute. Microchips and antennas printed on products using high-speed reel-to-reel processes within five to ten years. RFID components built into everything. The beauty of this scenario is that companies can build out their infrastructure for tracking pallets and cases today, and just as they are squeezing all the efficiencies out of that system, a technology for tracking unique items incredibly cheaply becomes available. Like one piece of an elegant puzzle sliding neatly into the next.

As a journalist, I find this fascinating to watch. It's almost like a scientist getting a chance to observe the Big Bang. In fact, it's even better than that. To my surprise, RFID Journal has begun playing the role of catalyst in this developing market, sometimes actively and sometimes passively. Many companies with RFID or RFID-related technologies have been reading the Journal to learn how their technology might play a role in broader tracking systems.

I get calls and e-mail from entrepreneurs with promising technologies who want to get connected to more-established players in the market or other entrepreneurs. It's happening more and more often. And venture capitalists have begun subscribing to learn about the opportunities to fund startups with technology related to RFID. The next step will be to bring the entrepreneurs and the funding together.

Our core mission will always be to educate business people about the potential benefits of RFID technology. However, if we can provide a little help in making the connections between companies with complementary technologies or between startups and potential investors, it is a role we are happy to play. In the end, it serves our readers' interests to have a vibrant and innovative market for RFID-related technologies because no one company will ever be able to deliver all the pieces of the puzzle alone.

Mark Roberti is the Editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article or submit your own, send e-mail to mroberti@rfidjournal.com.
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