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RFID Labels for Less

Power Paper licenses Motorola’s BiStatix technology to create low-cost smart labels made with printed antennas and batteries.
By Jonathan Collins
Jan 26, 2004Thin-film battery developer Power Paper will license Motorola’s neglected RFID technology to deliver RFID labels. Power Paper claims the labels will cost a few pennies each within 18 months.

A 5-cent tag has long been seen as the flash point that had to be reached before item-level tagging could become cost-effective. By licensing Motorola’s BiStatix technology, Power Paper believes it can create a new RFID smart label manufacturing system able to deliver labels flexible and cheap enough to ignite the wide adoption of item-level tagging.
Shalom Daskal

“As the market moves toward tagging at the pallet and crate level, there has to be preparation for item-level tagging, but first there is the challenge of the cost,” says Shalom Daskal, the CEO of Power Paper, which is based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Daskal maintains that current tag designs will never be able to be priced below 15 cents each because of the costly use of silver or aluminum to form those tags’ antennas. Power Paper aims to avoid that issue by adapting Motorola’s BiStatix technology—a patented technology based on capacitive coupling— to create cheap, flexible labels that use printed carbon ink to make the label antenna. Capacitive coupling enables the transfer of energy from one circuit to another by means of the mutual capacitance between the circuits. Most tags use inductive coupling: the transfer of energy from one circuit to another by virtue of the mutual inductance between the circuits. With capacitive coupling, the antenna’s resistance is no longer a critical factor, so antennas can be constructed from materials of considerably higher resistance than the metals used in inductive technology. In particular, this means that conductive inks, which have a moderate resistance, can be used to form the antenna. These inks are no more costly to produce than conventional printers’ inks.

The decision to turn to Motorola is an interesting one given that Motorola withdrew from the RFID industry and closed down its BiStatix project in 2001 without ever having brought a product to market. Nonetheless, Power Paper believes that the BiStatix technology—combined with Power Paper’s own micro batteries—will help the company succeed in making item-level tagging affordable.

“[Eighteen months from now] we will produce semi-active RFID labels with antennas and batteries that will each cost less than a cent,” says Daskal. Power Paper will turn to a network of manufacturers in the U.S., Europe and Japan to help manufacture the labels. Those companies will use flexographic printing technology—which has been in use for decades to stamp graphics and text on such things as product packaging—to print carbon ink antennas and batteries onto label stock. Power Paper’s batteries are printed directly onto paper, plastics or other surfaces and can be adapted to fit the shape, size and thickness required by any product’s design.

Unlike passive an RFID label (which draws all its power from the radio waves transmitted by an RFID reader) and an active label (which is powered entirely by battery), a semi-active label uses a battery to run the microchip’s circuitry but not to communicate with the reader. The company says it chose to use a semi-active label because such a label is simpler to design and cheap to manufacture.

A demonstration version of the Power Paper PowerID Printalix system will be ready within a year and will consist of the semi-active RFID labels, the software needed to support deployment, and a standard 125 MHz RFID reader. A full version of the system will be ready for sale in 18 months. That full version will include the labels and RFID readers and also the Multi Reader Management System—middleware software and hardware to link the reader network and with business applications (e.g., ERP and supply chain management systems). The price of the Printalix labels will be a couple of cents once volumes reach around 100 million, says Daskal.

Power Paper says it will also license from Motorola other BiStatix technologies, such as designs for anticollision functionality and for attaching the integrated circuit to the antenna. These technologies, Power Paper claims, will enable its Printalix labels to communicate with a reader at a rate of up to 500 labels per second and up to 10 meters away.

While the Printalix labels will support EPCglobal data formats, it will not use the same UHF frequency (850 to 900 MHz) set out by EPCglobal. According to Power Paper, UHF will not support item-level tagging because metal and liquid interfere with the transmission of radio waves in that part of the RF spectrum. The Printalix system will avoid those problems by working at 125 MHz. In addition, says Daskal, the Smart Active Labels Consortium—the brainchild of Baruch Levanon, founder and executive director of Power Paper—is working to have EPCglobal accept 125 MHz instead of 900 MHz as the global standard for item-level tagging. The Smart Active Labels Consortium is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and developing the use of smart active labels, which the organization defines as RFID labels that are partially or fully powered by a battery.

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