In October of this year, Xerox announced that it had developed a new silver ink enabling it to print circuits at room temperature. RFID is likely to be one beneficiary of this advance, because the circuitry in an RFID chip is not that sophisticated, and should thus be easily printable. However, I don’t expect there to be an immediate impact. At present, the demand for RFID transponders is not huge (perhaps a billion or so are sold each year). Therefore, printing companies will not invest huge sums to commercialize Xerox’s breakthrough by putting it into high speed roll-to-roll presses, nor will they commit space within their printing facilities to print tags when volumes are not that large.
Over the years, I have seen a number of “breakthroughs” that would supposedly revolutionize RFID. We have been writing about printed RFID tags since 2003. Some of these advances, such as Kovio‘s ability to print with silicon ink, are starting to bear fruit. The firm is not only producing tags, but selling them as well. But each breakthrough takes time to come to market.
One area in which the Xerox technology might gain some near-term traction is in electronic ticketing. Many cities around the world are now issuing transit tickets with an embedded transponder. RFID enables people to move through turnstiles more quickly, with less wear and tear on the machines. Printing low-cost transponders could reduce costs for these transit operators, making it easier for them to offer RFID-enabled one-way tickets, rather than use RFID just for multi-use tickets.
The ticketing market could prove the value of the Xerox technology and/or other advances in printed electronics, and encourage companies to begin commercializing these technologies. The next stage might be to print tags on the backs of hangtags for billions of clothing items. That would drive huge volumes and usher in an era of true, low-cost RFID transponders, which would make it easy to tag boxes in the supply chain with very little additional cost. But to me, that seems to be five years away, at least.
It’s also worth noting that printed transponders will not eliminate the need for conventional chip-based transponders. Printed tags will be extremely low-cost, and will have limited features and functionality. For instance, they won’t support much user memory or security. So there will always be a need for more advanced tags with such features. For instance, if you are placing a tag on a $1,000 lady’s designer handbag and want to use the tag to authenticate the product, rather than simply track it, you will reqiure a chip with security features. But if you are just tracking a case of shampoo through the supply chain, then a low-cost tag might make a great deal of sense.
—Mark Roberti, Editor, RFID Journal
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