Mühlbauer Unveils Machines that Print Tag Antennas, Attach Chips, ‘Personalize’ Labels

By Rhea Wessel

The new machines, the company reports, are designed to meet the market's needs for quality inlay production, as well as speed, scalability, flexibility and cost-savings.

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Mühlbauer, a company that manufactures turnkey solutions for the production of passive EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID inlays and their subsequent conversion into smart labels and smart tickets, recently launched three new production machines at its headquarters in Roding, Germany. The new machines produce antennas, create RFID labels by attaching chips to those antennas and “personalize” (print and encode) those labels.

The firm invited customers and business partners from around the world to attend an event that it called “RFID Innovation Days,” which included the unveiling of the three machines. To pulsing music and applause, Mühlbauer pulled back a silver cloth to reveal its APS 20000 antenna-production machine, which prints high-quality copper antennas on paper label substrate, and consists of modules for printing, curing and quality control.

Mühlbauer’s Thomas Betz

The next day, the company did the same for its DDA 20000 Direct Die Attach inlay-assembly solution, using passive EPC Gen 2 RFID chips provided by Impinj and NXP Semiconductors to demonstrate how the machine works. The company also unveiled its new Personalization Line.

“The RFID market is changing from a technology-driven market to an application-driven market,” said Thomas Betz, a member of Mühlbauer’s management board. “To meet the needs of the market for quality inlay production, speed, scalability, flexibility and cost-savings, we are simplifying and integrating manufacturing technologies and working to standardize and simplify product design.”

Betz opened the event with a presentation in which he described his vision of simplified and integrated in-house RFID tag production—an idea he referred to as “Concept 2020.” At present, Betz said, Mühlbauer’s production machines cover four process areas: antenna production, inlay assembly, converting or lamination, and personalization. Once additional Mühlbauer machines become available, he noted, RFID tag manufacturers needing to produce large quantities of particular labels (“high-runner products”) would be able to do so on a fully integrated production line—what Mühlbauer calls the RFID Line—comprising a single machine with dedicated solutions for particular applications.

“To achieve optimized production for high volumes, we want to develop small, flexible machines—rather like speedboats that are easy to handle instead of big tankers,” Betz said. “If you need more capacity, you just add one speedboat more to your fleet. This will lead us to high volumes and help decrease costs. We want to go from paper to personalized label in five minutes by 2020.”

Antenna Printing System (APS)
Mühlbauer’s new Antenna Printing System (APS) features copper-oxide ink printed on paper, compared with the current state-of-the art production method of etching aluminum on PET plastic. Mühlbauer was not the first company to develop printed copper antennas, but it believes that earlier versions were not sufficiently reliable or durable.

According to Franz Brandl, Mühlbauer’s head of R&D, a primary challenge the company faced in developing the APS was achieving antenna reliability. After two years of development, he said, Mühlbauer proved its printed copper antennas could function for 1,000 hours in test chambers at 85 degrees Celsius (185 degrees Fahrenheit) and 85 percent humidity.

One enabling factor of that performance, Brandl reported, is the Metalon copper-oxide reduction ink—developed by NovaCentrix, based in Austin, Texas—that the APS 20000 employs to make those antennas.

According to Brandl, the advantages of the APS process are NovaCentrix low-cost nano ink, the ability to produce labels on demand, and what Mühlbauer describes as low upfront investment costs for green technology. The company noted that compared with established etched-antenna production processes—which have more than 10 individual steps, including pretreatment, exposure and washing—the APS system has only three: design, printing, and drying and pressing. The result, Mühlbauer reports, is an inexpensive, high-quality antenna.

The main modules of the APS are an input spooler, a printing system with a dryer unit, a drive module, the NovaCentrix-made PulseForge 3200 system (which cures the metal-based inks), a pressing unit, a tester and bad mark unit, and an upwinder. The APS 20000 produces up to 20,000 antennas per hour in single-row mode, and can be upgraded to the APS 80000, which creates multiple rows of antennas. Mühlbauer expects to achieve sales of the APS 20000 by 2015.

Direct Die Attach (DDA)
Mühlbauer’s new Direct Die Attach (DDA) machine was designed to lower the cost of creating inlays by increasing the production rate to as many as 20,000 units per hour.
The company’s DDA technology contrasts with common flip-chip technologies, Betz explained, since with Mühlbauer’s approach, inlays are produced with a moveable wafer table positioned above the antenna material. “The path for the chip to be placed is the most direct way possible,” he stated.

The technological innovation offered by Mühlbauer’s new DDA machine, according to the company, is the ability to eliminate all complex chip-handling processes, thereby reducing chip-attachment costs by up to 50 percent, and also enabling a further reduction in chip size in the future.

Once the antenna tape is introduced into the DDA machine, the wafer is positioned directly above the tape so that the chip is centered correctly before being transferred via a needle to the target landing position on the antenna tape.

With flip-chip technology—the current industry standard—the machine picks up the chip via a flip head. It then turns the chip 180 degrees and places it in the target position.

“With its force and accuracy regulation,” Betz said, “the DDA eliminates the need to use a flip head and a place head. The DDA can apply the chip with the needle with the accurate force that keeps it from getting damaged.”

This accuracy is assured by means of cameras positioned behind the wafer and under the antenna tape. Mühlbauer has a patent on the direct-transfer process it developed to align the chip with the wafer, the company said.

The Personalization Line
The third type of machine that Mühlbauer unveiled was its Personalization Line, comprising the PL 30000 and PL 60000 models. These machines are used to print data on a label and electronically encode information on that label’s embedded RFID chip—all at production speed. The technology replaces the thermal-transfer printing of individual labels with reel-to-reel inkjet printing, thereby increasing performance and decreasing costs for high-volume production.

The new Personalization Line machines help operators decrease the amount of manual labor required of employees who must load individual labels into the machine, Brandl said. When workers load individual labels, there is a chance that data mismatch could occur.

“With the reel and the machine connected to a remote database, we can be more accurate with the data transfer,” Brandl explained. “We’ve got a controlled environment and can confirm that the information printed on the label is the same as the information [encoded] inside the label.”

Mühlbauer’s PL series machines feature modular systems for different use cases, as well as printing and optical-verification technologies. The PL 60000 includes an integrated chip-encoding system that employs Impinj’s Source Tagging Platform (STP).