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Put RFID in Your Product, Not on It

Embedding a transponder in products—particularly consumer electronics—delivers more value with no business process change, and the incremental cost is almost insignificant.
By Mark Roberti
The great thing about embedding a transponder in an electronics product is that the additional 10 cents or 20 cents for an RFID chip then becomes an insignificant item on a bill of materials that could total $10, $20, $50 or more. And as Bill Colleran, CEO of Impinj, points out, the business process doesn't have to change (as it does with applying an RFID label). "Robots typically pick the components of a tape reel and place them on the board, so the RFID chip would just be another item to add to the PCB," he says. "It doesn't change the process, doesn't add much to the bill of materials and delivers a lot of benefits. RFID becomes a no-brainer."

Impinj has been working with several electronics and microchip manufacturers to develop chips that can be added to PCBs. So have other RFID companies. While hosting our RFID Journal LIVE! Europe 2009 event a weeks ago, in Germany, I got a chance to sit down with Alexander Schmoldt, a business development engineer at Murata Elektronik GmbH. His company has developed a new RFID module, known as the Magicstrap, which comprises a low-temperature co-fired ceramic substrate and an embedded RFID chip. The module can be mounted on or embedded in a PCB and, according to Murata, can be read over the 800 MHz to 1,000 MHz band at a distance of 5 meters (16.4 feet). That means a tag on a PCB could be used to track the item through the supply chain to the retail store.

I recently visited NXP Semiconductors' Application and System Center, in Graz, Austria. While I was there, Martin Schatzmayer, the head of the center, showed me a prototype of a chip that can be embedded in a PCB, and that can use the ground plane in the PCB as its antenna. The product is not yet ready for commercialization, but Schatzmayer believes NXP can create a design that will work on virtually any PCB.

Impinj's Colleran says there are essentially three options for adding RFID to PCBs. One is to place a chip on the board, connecting it in the process to an antenna on the board. Another is to embed the transponder in the board, and a third is to have connections from the chip to an antenna that is not part of the board.

"There are pros and cons to each approach," Colleran explains. "If you put the chip on the board, you are potentially taking up valuable real estate. If you embed the transponder in the PCB, the components that go on it have a lot of metal and could block a signal from reaching the antenna, which affects performance. And if you connect the chip to an antenna that is not on the board, there might be a metal housing that blocks the signal."

Electronics manufacturers will have to choose one approach or another, depending on the product being made, but Colleran says achieving the 5 to 8 feet of read range needed to track electronic products in the supply chain is feasible. He thinks the first products with RFID transponders on the circuit board will begin hitting the market in the second half of next year. It will likely take a longer time to develop transponders that can be embedded in PCBs, but when RFID becomes just another component on a PCB, companies will likely jump at the opportunity to use it to track their electronics products throughout their lifecycle.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.

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