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Start the Presses

Conductive inks could revolutionize the tracking of products throughout the supply chain by making it possible to print RFID antennas—and, one day, complete transponders—for next to nothing.
By Bob Violino
Jul 26, 2004—rs are eagerly awaiting the much-heralded 5-cent RFID tag. Semiconductor companies and tag makers are working on innovative ways to bring the price of silicon down to make a nickel tag feasible. But the key to creating a low-cost RFID tag—and to widespread adoption of RFID—may lie elsewhere.


Antennas printed on ordinary labels or cardboard with conductive inks could, within a few years, replace conventional solid-copper RFID antennas, which gather energy from the reader to power a passive RFID transponder (one with no battery). Printed antennas are less expensive and more flexible than metal ones. And research underway today could make it possible to print both the integrated circuit and the antenna—that is, the entire passive RFID transponder—with inexpensive inks, much the way bar codes are printed today. That would bring a passive tag’s cost down to less than a penny and make it possible to put tags on just about any product.

A printed antenna operates with conventional RFID readers and is far more cost effective. Whereas a label with an embedded passive RFID transponder costs anywhere from 20 to 60 cents each, an RFID transponder with a printed antenna could cost 15 cents to 30 cents today and less as high-speed printing machines come on line. Printed antennas have other advantages over solid-metal antennas. They can be attached to a microchip and turned into a transponder up to 10 times faster than conventional antennas. Solid-metal antennas also pose environmental concerns because of the chemicals used to create them and the fact that they can’t be recycled.

Despite its nascent state, the prospect of printed RFID antennas is already garnering a good deal of attention. The main reason is printing antennas directly on corrugated boxes and attaching a chip to create a transponder would lower the cost of using RFID in the supply chain. “Although widespread application is still a few years away, conductive inks could revolutionize products and packaging,” says Bruce Kahn, an assistant professor in the department of material sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

Industry analysts also foresee printed RFID cards for mass transit and access control within companies. These print-on-demand cards would speed lines by eliminating swiping that’s required for magnetic-stripe cards, and do away with constant cleaning and maintenance required on hardware. Printed cards and labels could also be used by airports, hospitals, libraries and parcel delivery services for inventory and supply chain management.

The market for smart labels—an ordinary bar code label with an RFID transponder embedded in it—could reach $4 billion in 2007 and $10 billion in 2013, according to IDTechEx, a Cambridge, England, consulting firm that tracks RFID and related technology, including conductive inks. Yet, for transponders with printed antennas to capture a significant share of that market, they must first overcome both technical and practical hurdles.
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