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Printed-Electronics RFID Tags: From Promise to Reality

High-frequency tags with printed electronics could be cheaper than conventional RFID tags—and could pave the way for a host of new applications.
By Jill Gambon
Aug 01, 2008—RFID tags made with printed electronics, long thought to be years away from widespread availability, are moving closer to hitting the market en masse. Printed electronics is an emerging technology that uses standard printing processes to enable low-cost manufacturing of a variety of devices, including RFID tags, flexible displays, batteries and transistors. Companies such as Kovio and PolyIC, which have both produced high-frequency tags with printed integrated circuits (ICs), are now fine-tuning their offerings and gearing up for increased production.

Tags with printed electronics hold the promise of lower prices, because commercial printing processes are used to produce the ICs that power the tags instead of the expensive and complicated method of silicon fabrication used in manufacturing conventional silicon chips. The tags, the companies say, can be produced with less capital expense and shorter production cycles. Kovio, a Silicon Valley venture-backed company, says it can manufacture its tags' ICs in a single day, compared with the 90 days it takes to make traditional silicon chips.

Last November, Kovio made a splash in the printed-electronics world when it introduced a thin-film transistor (TFT) printed with silicon ink on a flexible, stainless-steel foil substrate. The transistor is a component of an IC, which contains multiple TFTs that control various functions on the chip. The printed ICs are key to producing RFID tags that cost just pennies, the company says. Kovio has been continuing development of HF tags that use the printed ICs and expects an official product launch later this year. In June, Kovio moved into a 95,000-square-foot headquarters in Milpitas, Calif., that includes space for expanded manufacturing operations. The company says it will provide engineering samples to customers in the second half of this year and expects to ramp up production in 2009.

Last September, PolyIC—a five-year-old joint venture between Siemens and Leonhard Kurz Stiftung, headquartered in Fuerth, Germany—unveiled its PolyID tags, with printed chips that use mostly organic materials. The HF tags comprise roll-to-roll printed transponder chips, based on the polymer semiconductor polythiophene, printed on flexible polyester film. Customers are currently testing the tags, but the company says it is prohibited from identifying them due to privacy agreements.

While PolyIC has optimized its tags for the initial application of authentication, it envisions a far wider market. "Lower-cost tags with printed RFID enables RFID everywhere," says Wolfgang Mildner, managing director of PolyIC. The company is now scaling up production of the tags.

Both Kovio and PolyIC are focusing on HF tags in their initial product releases because of the ubiquity of applications that operate in that range. In addition, the tag design to support those applications is less complex, requiring less memory and processing power. "The more memory you put into the chip, the more complicated it is to manufacture," Mildner says.

While the read range of the HF tags may be limited—a few centimeters for PolyIC's tags and about half a meter (1.6 feet) for Kovio's—the companies say that's enough for such applications as authentication, access control and ticketing. Both companies also say they will offer UHF tags over time, as the printed-electronics technology matures and if there is demand.
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