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Trend Tracking: PCB Makers Show Interest in RFID

This article examines the state of the RFID market for printed circuit board (PCB) tracking. RFID vendors say there haven't been any large-scale deployments, but interest has increased in the past few months for work-in-process, authentication and warranty tracking applications.
Oct 20, 2008This article was originally published by RFID Update.

October 20, 2008—Wherever there's a printed circuit board (PCB), there's potential to improve its manufacturing, service and security with RFID. Manufacturers of electronics products ranging from cell phones to arena scoreboards are investigating the use of RFID to improve PCB tracking (see these photos of example PCBs). Improved RFID technology and increased awareness by electronics manufacturers could soon result in the first large-scale PCB tracking applications, according to vendors contacted by RFID Update.

"There is a lot of tire-kicking at the moment," Chris Cook, applications engineer at RFID provider Texas Instruments, told RFID Update.

"The request for the technology has been there for many years, but RFID technology wasn't really ready for it," Victor Vega, director of technical marketing at Alien Technology, told RFID Update. "Now the technology is ready for it, but it's still an early market."

Potential applications include work-in-process (WIP) tracking, unique identification for product authentication (which can be used for sales, returns and warranty management), and service tracking. RFID is advantageous for these operations because it can securely and uniquely identify the board to provide authentication (counterfeiting and fraud are major problems in the electronics industry) and because tags are rewriteable, so they can be updated with configuration information and service histories in addition to providing identification. PCB makers have shown interest in all these applications, according to Vega and Cook, with many of the inquiries coming in the past few months.

"There's always difficulty in the rework process," said Cook. "Manufacturers always have units in rework, but it's difficult for them to know how many units went through the process. This is an area where RFID can improve manufacturing visibility."

Cook and Vega said electronics manufacturing is not an especially challenging read/write environment for RFID. They also agree that UHF technology is advantageous because required read ranges (typically less than a meter, almost always less than three meters) can be attained with small tags and antennas.

The bigger challenges to electronics industry RFID adoption are its awareness of the technology, legacy processes and product design cycles. Printed circuit boards are usually crowded and manufacturers strive to make them smaller, making it more challenging to find space for an RFID tag on the board. Production, inspection and service operations also need to be analyzed to determine if RFID would be beneficial, then altered if it would.

"It's not difficult to develop RFID systems for electronics manufacturing, it's just a matter of awareness," said Vega. "It takes about a year for manufacturers to design it into their products."

"There's a heckuva lot more work that has to occur on the system level than on the board level," said Cook.

Vega and Cook both emphasized the PCB market for RFID systems is in its early stage and neither is aware of any large-scale deployments. They expect that to change, though when and where the first implementations occur are not clear.

"Early adopters will probably be those with more margin," said Cook. "Once manufacturers and systems integrators cut their teeth on these systems, I think it will extend down to other levels."

Vega said interest appears strongest from manufacturers of LCDs, laptops, desktop computers, and some appliance makers. The computer market could get a boost from the growing interest in using RFID to track IT assets after they are sold and installed, although the same tag used for post-production asset management may not be best suited for WIP tracking and other internal applications.

"It looks as if electronics manufacturers are still doing the feasibility analysis," Vega said. "The good news is, they're looking ahead and RFID is starting to get traction."
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