May 13, 2002May 13, 2002 - Alien Technology has been getting a lot of attention for its innovative "nanoblocks" – tiny microchips the width of three human hairs. But these tiny chips aren't much use without a low-cost antenna. And that's where a small, unheralded Finnish comes in. Rafsec is pioneering the development and production of new antenna technology that could usher in a new era of computing based on radio frequency identification.
Rafsec is a subsidiary of Finland's UPM-Kymmene Corp., (NYSE: UPM) one of the world's largest manufacturers of newsprint and magazine paper in the world (The company's turnover in 2001 was EUR 9.9 billion and it has 36,000 employees and manufacturing facilities in 17 countries.) UPM also has a division called Raflatac, which is a major producer of self-adhesive label stock. The Finnish paper giant became interested in RFID technology as a way of driving its label business.
Rafsec was set up by UPM in 1997 in Tampere, Finland, where it does most of its R&D. In 1999, Rafsec opened a production facility in Jyväskylä, Finland, to manufacture RFID transponders. The company's focus was on innovation, and it was keen to work with academia to improve its RFID technology. That led it to the Auto-ID Center, which was opened at MIT in 1999. Rafsec joined in January 2001.
Rafsec understood that if the Auto-ID Center was successful in creating a system for tracking items worldwide using low-cost RFID tags, it would open a massive new market for Rafsec's technology. Last year, Rafsec signed a partnership deal with Alien, under which Alien would produce it's nanoblocks, flow them into a "strap" – a band that makes it easier to connect the antenna to the chip – and ship them to Rafsec in Finland. Rafsec would attach the antenna and package the completed tag into a self-adhesive label that could be slapped on products or cases.
The only question: How do you create a low-cost antenna for a tag that is supposed to sell for 5 cents?
Most RFID antennas today are made by treating conductive metals like copper and aluminum with acid to make them more responsive to electromagnetic waves sent out by the reader. The antenna is then shaped, often into a coil. Another process is to print antennas with conductive silver paste. Both of these processes are too expensive to be practical for a low-cost tag.
Motorola came up with a method of printing an antenna using conductive carbon ink and attaching a microchip to it. The BiStatix technology got a lot of press initially, but last year, Motorola decided to abandon the business. The technology needed millions more in R&D work to be commercially applicable, and Motorola, which was been struggling in the face of the technology downturn, decided to concentrate its efforts on more profitable lines of business.
Other companies were working with similar technologies. One was a British company called TDAO Ltd. Instead of etching away material from the metal antenna, TDAO came up with a process by which a copper antenna is manufactured by adding material, instead of etching it away. One side benefit of this technology is that it's environmentally friendly. Since acids don't need to be used, there is no waste that needs to be disposed of.
Rafsec had been working with TDAO, and in December of 2001, UPM acquired a majority stake in the British company. Rafsec has been outfitting its production facility in Finland with machines that will do the high-speed plating of the antennas. Lindström says Rafsec can produce antennas for about a penny when manufactured in bulk, compared with 5 to 15 cents for typical antennas made with existing technology.
The Auto-ID Center is currently using off-the-shelf technology in its field test. The Center would like to put low-cost tags on individual items as part of the third phase of its field test this summer. Lindström says Rafsec and Alien are only slightly behind their original production plan. The first test run of the manufacturing process will be done this summer, and the tags should be ready for the Auto-ID test.
Initially, there will be two versions of the tag, which will hold only an Electronic Product Code. There will be a 13.56 MHz tag with a coiled antenna for use at close range (within a meter). There will also be a UHF version with a dipole antenna, which will have a longer read range.
"Depending on how well the field test goes, we could begin commercial production of EPC tags this years," Lindström says.