Terepac Announces Tiny NFC RFID Tags, Made Via New Assembly Process

By Claire Swedberg

The Ontario start-up company says its TereTags could be built into products or logos at a fraction of the cost of existing, larger inlays.

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Microelectronics developer Terepac reports that within the next few months, it plans to begin manufacturing what it claims will be the world’s smallest Near Field Communication (NFC) RFID tag, known as the TereTag. Terepac says its passive 13.56 MHz tag, built with the company’s patented assembly method, would be cheaper and much smaller than other NFC tags currently on the market, and thus could be embedded in almost any paper label, product or item. The tag could be interrogated via an NFC reader in a user’s mobile phone, thereby making it possible to link a customer with information regarding a particular product, or link an individual with a social-networking site, medication data or other Web-based information.

Terepac, located in Waterloo, Ontario, opened in 2004 with the intent of making custom-designed, miniaturized electronics for customers in a variety of vertical markets, including health care, automotive and transportation. In 2011, the firm first began working with potential customers focused specifically on RFID and NFC technologies. As a result, Terepac developed a tag that its customers could embed in a product or its label, no matter how small, and the company would also provide software to manage the tag-read data, according to Terepac’s CEO, Ric Asselstine. The manufacturing of the tags will be performed at the company’s Waterloo headquarters, as well as at a smaller facility located in Dresden, Germany, says Jayna Sheats, Terepac’s CTO. It’s possible, she adds, that the tags could also be produced at a customer’s or partner’s factory.


Terepac’s CEO, Ric Asselstine

To miniaturize the circuits in its tag, Terepac is employing a patented semiconductor packaging and assembly method based on photoelectronics. With traditional tag manufacturing, a chip—typically a square measuring 1 millimeter (0.4 inch) in length and width—must be connected to an antenna, which is accomplished by first positioning the IC next to the antenna, via a mechanical arm that uses suction to lift and then release the chip. A wire or conductive adhesive is then applied, in order to join the chip to the antenna. Terepac employs a photoprinting circuit-assembly process that replaces the mechanical pick-and-place step in conventional microelectronics packaging. Instead, it employs a rigid plate with an adhesive polymer that can pick up as many as 1,000 chips at a time. As the plate is lifted over the antennas, a beam of light is focused on the polymer behind each chip, which decomposes that polymer into a gas. At this point, the chip is dropped, and is then bonded to the antenna via photoprinting—rather than using the traditional wire or conductive adhesive, which fills a greater amount of space, resulting in a larger tag.

In this way, Terepac’s tag-manufacturing system is as much as 10 to 100 times faster than that of mechanical pick-and-place methods, says Thomas Balkos, the company’s director of technology integration. “We can provide a process which gives greater output for a given amount of capital cost than any competitor,” Sheats states. “That is where our manufacturing cost advantage comes in.”

What’s more, the company indicates, although RFID microchips currently measure 1 millimeter in length and width, this new assembly method will enable chip manufacturers to create much smaller chips, as little as 25 microns (0.00098 inch) in thickness—traditionally, chips are 500 microns (0.0197 inch) thick—and 50 microns (0.00197 inch) in length and width, or smaller. Until now, Asselstine notes, chip manufacturers simply could not make smaller chips, since existing tag-manufacturing processes were unable to accommodate them.

According to Sheats, some chipmakers have been expressing an interest in providing smaller chips. Producing smaller chips requires no changes in equipment or processes, she says. “For them, it is just a question of design… the change is very simple to make,” she states, adding that her company is in conversations with some chip manufacturers, and that some fabless IC companies—primarily startups—are already working to design ultrasmall chips.

Terepac is now in the final stages of creating a partnership with an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) that Asselstine says is a global company that will provide a variety of miniaturized electronics, including NFC technology manufactured by Terepac. He declines to provide specifics about the products, however, or regarding the role that the OEM company will play in marketing or using the technology.

The applications are unlimited, Asselstine says. Although the exact length, width and thickness of a complete TereTag (a chip joined to an antenna and mounted onto a substrate) has yet to be determined, it would be small enough to fit, for instance, in a paper label that would be undetectable. The tag could then be utilized for tracking everything from food items to medical devices, pharmaceuticals and smart-poster applications.

“The requests we’re getting are across every vertical,” Asselstine says. “We’re working with visionary companies that understand the merit of the Internet of Things.” The release of NFC-enabled phones, he adds, will increase the demand for TereTags. The scarcity of NFC technology in mobile phones, he says, has been a barrier to adoption, but once a large number of phones are NFC-enabled, “that’s the watershed moment.”

Terepac is still developing the NFC software to capture and store read data, as well as link ID numbers to the information that users require, but the company plans to offer the software platform either on a cloud-based server or on a user’s own database. With regard to the NFC tags, Terepac expects to be able to fill orders nine to 12 months from now.