RFID and Printed Electronics

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 05.07.07

Although the RFID and printed electronics markets are growing, they have yet to meet the high expectations. However, experts believe the market will take off in the near future.

RFID (radio frequency identification) and printed electronics immediately bring visions of huge markets to mind. According to IDTechEx, the leading consultants in the field, the market for RFID in 2007 was $5 billion worldwide, and they anticipate the market to grow to $27 billion by 2016.

However, previous optimistic estimates for these new technologies have come down in recent times,

Ciba Specialty Chemicals’ Xymara Electra conductive inks can be applied at high speeds and have superior line definition and resolution.
and even those companies that are succeeding in the markets agree that adoption of RFID and printed electronics is not occurring as fact as was anticipated. Still, industry experts expect that the time will come when RFID fulfills its promise.
“It’s a very strange business, with companies that are landing the biggest contracts that are not very well known,” noted Dr. Peter Harrop, TITLE of  IDTechEx, during the RFID Smart Labels USA 2007 Conference held in Boston, MA in February. As is the case with most RFID and printed electronics conferences, attendance was enthusiastic and turnout was high. Dr. Harrop pointed to successes, such as China’s $1.6 billion National ID card program, utilizing RFID tags, in time for 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
While the card market is the largest for RFID, at $1.4 billion, Dr. Harrop noted that RFID appears on everything from livestock to passports. The key is item level tagging, where customers can walk their grocery cart under a scanner and pay their bill with a smart card. That, however, seems a ways off. The largest contract for RFID is held by Lockheed Martin, which has $425 million contract from the U.S. Army, according to Dr. Harrop.
RFID offers tremendous value. For consumers, RFID tagging offers protection from counterfeiting, and it offers invaluable information on logistics.

During that February conference, Dr. Michael Okorofoar, director, global packaging technology services for Coca-Cola, talked about the possibilities and the challenges of RFID and printed electronics.

“Consumers have moved beyond passive use of products and expect brand interactivity,” Dr. Okorofoar said. “RFID can provide interactvity and two-way communication. However, tag cost is the primary driver. Coca-Cola products have 1.3 billion servings a day, and carbonated soft drink sales are $200 billion a year. Even if technology and costs are in line, customer adoption is essential for suppliers to realize the benefits. Tags have to be at a penny, and readers will have to be located at one million customer outlets and work for 1,000 SKUs worldwide. We will need uniform standards.”

In a nutshell, those are the keys to the item level tagging market. There is a need for costs to come down, and a common standard will be necessary. “We need common standards, and we still need a three-fold reduction in price to make RFID mass tagging appealing in most consumer product goods (CPG) categories,” added Zach Thorn of Unilever.

For other companies, such as Caterpillar USA, RFID offers tracking capabilities. “Global visibility and tracking is key. Half of our sales are outside the U.S., and we have incoming parts, suppliers, JVs and sister facilities outside the U.S., as well as our dealer network,” said Byron Blackburn of Caterpillar USA. “Customer satisfaction is most important.”

Ink Companies Take Interest

Understandably, ink manufacturers are interested in the possibilities offered by RFID and printed electronics. If tags can indeed be printed – which most likely would be the least expensive way of manufacturing billions of tags – it would be a sizable market. The keys are to develop conductive inks and develop partnerships. Sun Chemical and Toyo Ink Group are among the major conventional ink manufacturers developing products for the RFID and printed electronics market.
“We at Sun are currently supplying silver and dielectric products for additive manufacturing techniques,” said Andy Parkinson, marketing manager, screen and electrographics for Sun Chemical. “For subtractive techniques, we are supplying etch resistant inks for copper and aluminum foils. We have a number of alliances which are currently under non-disclosure agreements (NDA).”
“Printing technology has been fully utilized by the electronics industry for a while,” said Tak O’Hara, general manager, radiation cure systems for Toyo Ink Mfg. Co., Ltd. “Toyo Ink Group (TIG) has been one of the strongest and largest material suppliers in this field for long time. Needless to say, TIG will continuously enhance our business in this segment. We are fully convinced that it will be tremendous opportunity for the printing and ink industries.
“There are mainly two completely opposite characteristics required by the electronics industry,” Mr. O’Hara said. “One is conductive material and the other is dielectric material. Since TIG has developed both materials, we will target on all segments which utilize printing technologies.”
On the other hand, start-up companies are also doing quite well in the field. Parelec is one such company that is making a significant mark in the RFID industry.
“We’re growing very nicely,” said Geva Barash, president and CEO of Parelec, an industry leader in conductive inks, developing and marketing a total RFID solution for different vertical markets. “We have a lot of applications we are addressing.”
“Our work is progressing well, although the market is at a very early stage,” said Dr. Alan Rae, vice president of market and business development for NanoDynamics, which specializes in metal powders, silver materials and nano-solder particles. “It takes a lot of work to go from proof of concept to becoming an industrially robust material, and we now have production samples undergoing customer evaluation.”
“We look at RFID and printed electronics as a real opportunity, and we are partnering with a number of companies throughout the supply chain to ensure we’re providing the right products for the market,” Dr. Rae said. “We are working with ink companies to produce silver nanoparticles in dispersion to use to produce conductive inks. We have the ability to scale up to tonnage very rapidly, and I don’t believe anybody else is in that position.”
RFID and printed electronics have so much promise, which has led other major players to examine the marketplace in recent days.
Ciba Specialty Chemicals is entering the printable electronics market with a new range of conductive inks for radio frequency identification (RFID) antennas, packaging and graphic arts applications. Ciba’s Xymara Electra inks can be applied at high speeds and have superior line definition and resolution. The first generation of inks has been designed for rotary screen and flatbed screen printing; inks for other printing methods are in preparation.
“Printable electronics is a high-potential growth market,” said Mike Mordente, global head of Ciba’s Imaging & Inks business line. “Our expertise in printing allows us to offer the market a superior product and to support the development of the printable electronics sector, especially RFID.
“We see great opportunities for conductive inks in the RFID antenna printing sector and for other graphic arts applications,” Mr. Mordente said. “Our extensive knowledge of the printing market allowed us to create a product that offers customers the option of printing at higher speeds and achieving better line resolution than conventional products.” Mr. Mordente added that Ciba will launch additional inks for flexo and gravure printing in the near future.
BASF Future Business GmbH recently extended its technology portfolio and cooperation network in the printed electronics sector by starting a collaboration with Polyera Corporation that will focus on the development and commercialization of organic semiconductors and dielectrics for use in CMOS-analog printed circuits.

Developing Partnerships

Partnerships are a key element in Parelec’s business strategy. Parelec formed the Certified Partner Program (CPP), a business partnership solution for printers and equipment partners that delivers information, education and insights to boost personal, professional and organizational performance. Mr. Barash said the CPP has proven itself.
“We provide complete solutions through our partners,” Mr. Barash said. “The program brings together printers, substrate manufacturers, chip suppliers, attachment technologies, label makers, custom integrators and end-users to streamline project production. The idea is to take the guesswork out of RFID labels for all parties. We are working with printers and end-users, and we are finding new applications that nobody had in mind before.”
Among the notable partners in the CPP are Stora Enso, PPG Industries and NXP, and Mr. Barash said selecting the right partners is critical: “We understand that choosing the right partners is a very critical task for the company and we want to insure that the partners we choose are the right partners,” Mr. Barash said.
In December 2006, Parelec acquired Israeli-based Precision Systems, a developer of active RFID and RTLS solutions for the automotive and defense markets. Parelec operates today two business units delivering conductive inks and related materials for the printed electronic and RFID markets as well as active RFID and real time location solutions for the automotive and defense assets management markets.
 “We are looking at acquisitions that establish ourselves in the RFID market in a deeper way,” Mr. Barash said. “Eventually there will have to be a combination of active and passive technology, and working with Precision Systems will help accomplish those needs.”
“We are indeed working with OEM manufacturers but under NDA,” Mr. Parkinson said. “Sun is currently utilizing its expertise with customers and partners. Our market access and knowledge of printing processes and manufacturing techniques are extensive. We have a unique position with our printed circuit  business unit which helps us understand the techniques employed in different  printed circuit manufacturing markets.
“We lead with a match of our printed circuit technologies with the fast printing analog or digital techniques to offer the next generation hybrid products and processes focused mainly on conductive interconnects,” Mr. Parkinson added.
“TIG’s expertise are material development technology, efficient manufacturing engineering and printing related technology, such as prepress, plate making, on press and postpress,” Mr. O’Hara noted. “Based upon those three main expertises, TIG has been taking a unique position in the marketplace with our totally differentiated business approach from any other player in the industry.  We are fully capable to support the industry in any degree.”
“We look at RFID and printed electronics as a real opportunity, and we are partnering with a number of companies throughout the supply chain to ensure we’re providing the right products for the market,” Dr. Rae said. “We are working with ink companies to produce silver nanoparticles in dispersion to use to produce conductive inks. We have the ability to scale up to tonnage very rapidly, and I don’t believe anybody else is in that position.”
“Printing technology has a huge potential to support innovative progress as an efficient and economical application to reproduce microscopic parts constantly,” Mr. O’Hara added.
“While the RFID market has not taken off dramatically, it is an absolutely great market to be in,” Mr. Barash said. “At the end of the day, it is a data collection technology that allows better decision-making. Right now, it’s a technology waiting for a big market, and I believe it will take off in the near future.”