Fine pattern printed circuits created by screen printing. Toyo Ink reproduced the 20μ line thickness using a conventional printing technique in place of photolithography. (Photo courtesy of Toyo Ink Manufacturing)
IDTechEx forecasts a $5.29 billion RFID market in 2008, up 7.3 percent on the $4.93 billion in 2007. In 2018, that market could rise to more than $25 billion, according to the firm.
“By 2018, the market value will be over five times the size of the market compared to 2008, but the number of tags supplied will be over 300 times that of 2008, driven by the development of lower cost tags and installed infrastructure which will enable high volumes of articles to be tagged,” said Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx. Mr. Das forecasts that contactless smart cards will dominate until 2009 by value; in 2008, 57.3 percent of the total market value for RFID will be spent on cards and associated infrastructure, with $2.26 billion of the total $5.29 billion being spent on all other forms of RFID, from RFID labels to active tags.
RFID can be found in an incredible array of applications, from military equipment to passports, in transportation through mass transit tickets and toll systems such as EZPass, to livestock and pharmaceutical labeling.
In one example of the potential for growth, 40 million people in Japan now have RFID enabled phones, and these cell phones are speeding up the demand for RFID, as users are able to access anything from tickets to groceries.
On the RFID side, the big target has been the concept of item-level tagging, where RFID chips would take the place of bar codes. The benefits would include inventory control as well as the creation of “smart shelves,” in which information could be transmitted to consumers through phones or other readers. However, the cost of even the least expensive RFID chips, combined with the substantial capital investment needed to implement these systems, remains too high to be economically feasible.
While estimates continue to fluctuate as to the future size of the printed electronics and RFID markets, there is no denying that the market for RFID and printed electronics is sizable today, and will continue to grow in the future.
As a result, there is much interest from major international corporations in the market. In February, for example, PolyIC, BASF, Evonik Industries, Elantas Beck and Siemens announced the launch of a new German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF)-sponsored alliance project called MaDriX to advance the development of high-performance printable RFID tags, which will make printed tags suitable for use in cheaper consumer goods so that they may even come to replace printed barcodes.
One of the keys to the potential success of the market is the development of conductive inks, typically utilizing silver as the component. It could be a sizable piece of business: according to NanoMarkets, an industry analyst firm based in Glen Allen, VA, the market for silver conductive inks will almost triple over the next eight years to reach $2.4 billion by 2015. With that in mind, ink manufacturers have sprung up from all areas, leading to a mix of joint ventures, start-ups and conventional ink companies.
PolyIC, a joint venture formed in November 2003 between Leonhard Kurz Stiftung & Co. KG and Siemens AG, has become an industry leader in the conductive ink market. PolyIC has realized two product lines – one in the field of printed RFID that has the brand name PolyID, and a second product line in the field of smart objects that has the brand name PolyLogo.
“With these first printed products, we will reach completely different market segments to conventional RFID transponders,” said managing director Wolfgang Mildner. “Thus, we can tap into an enormous market potential, which PolyIC will approach with several pilot applications. We are already testing possible fields of application with various pilot customers.”
In addition, some leading international ink manufacturers are developing products for this market.
One area of success for RFID is smart cards, used for mass transit, money cards and other applications. Kensuke Koga, general manager, RC Sales Development Department for Toyo Ink Mfg. Co., Ltd., said Toyo Ink has seen rapid growth in the global RFID market for tags and systems at the HF frequency, and spoke of the advantages of HF.
“A distinguishing feature of HF is its short read distance, making it suitable for IC cards for mass transit and money card applications,” Mr. Koga said. “This has created strong demand for cost-effective and reliable HF RFID antennas. Etching is the most commonly used method to create these antenna circuit patterns, and volume production is being carried out, lowering production costs and fueling demand even further.”
Mr. Koga said that regarding UHF RFID, demand from various industries is extremely strong for the longer-range systems, which are poised to surpass conventional barcodes as a new product tracking or identification method in sectors such as supply chain management. Cost is the key obstacle.
“The greatest obstacle to widespread commercial deployment of UHF RFID tags and systems is the high cost of creating a tagged object,” Mr. Koga said. “The etching method requires both wet and dry process for designing these antenna circuits, making it difficult to resolve the issue of cost reduction. With the patterning in etching, chemical treatment process is required, resulting in waste fluid. Thus, the etching method is not considered the most eco-friendly method.”
Printed electronics would be the ideal solution to bring costs to an acceptable level.
Photo courtesy of Ciba Corporation.
Mr. Koga said that printing technology is one way to overcome the barrier of pricing.
“Conductive ink is deemed to be the only technology being evaluated with global appeal,” Mr. Koga said. “The printing method makes use of the dry process only, making it possible to print the circuit pattern in the required area in the required amount. Moreover, unlike the etching method, the waste fluid process is not required, making the print method a more earth-friendly and efficient alternative.
“Conductive ink is the perfect complement to use with the printing process,” Mr. Koga added. “Printing conductive patterns with silver paste ink generates outputs in large volumes, stable supply and with no wastes, resulting in a reduction in total production costs. We believe that, from now into the future, printing with conductive ink will become the method of choice in the creation of both HF and UHF RFID antenna.”
Colin Davie, director of commercialization, Sun Chemical, noted that the printed RFID antenna market is established, although its size and growth rate is less than had been predicted a few years ago.
“Ongoing cost-performance issues need to be resolved before item level tagging can become a reality,” Mr. Davie added. “We do, however, see steady growth for conductive fluids in other applications such as membrane switch, smart cards and solar power. Sun Chemical will continue to develop new innovations to help our customers grow in these areas.”
New Products for
The RFID Market
With an eye toward the tremendous potential of the market, Toyo Ink, Sun Chemical and Ciba have successfully launched products into the conductive ink market.
Toyo Ink started the development of conductive silver paste ink for UHF RFID antennas from 2000. Mr. Koga noted that in Japan, the UHF antenna market is projected to expand starting in 2009, and Toyo Ink is involved in several development collaborations with partnering companies. One key development is Toyo Ink’s Rexalpha series of conductive inks.
“The Toyo Ink Rexalpha series of conductive ink offers ultra-thin and low resistance properties, low curing temperatures for fast curing time and superior printability,” Mr. Koga said. “Toyo Ink’s world-class silver ink takes the top honors with regard to these features. We have already successfully completed trial testing of our conductive materials in Japan and are working to expand this business to markets overseas as we’ve been receiving an influx of inquiries from the EU, U.S. and other countries in Asia.”
Mr. Davie noted that Sun Chemical has been involved with the printed circuit board market for more than 50 years. “We see many new growth opportunities in the evolving printed electronics space and we will leverage our formulation and print applications expertise to create new products to address the unique needs of this new and exciting space,” Mr. Davie said.
“Sun Chemical sells a wide range of products in the electronics market including conductive inks, dielectrics and etch resists,” Mr. Davie added. “We sell to the PCB, flex circuit, RFID, membrane switch, smart card and photovoltaics markets.”
Ciba launched its Xymara Electra conductive inks in the North American market at the IDTechEx Printed Electronics conference in November 2007. The launch in Europe was in April 2007.
“There has been a lot if interest in our Xymara Electra inks,” noted Neil Forsythe, NAFTA technical director, Imaging & Inks business for Ciba Corporation. “In particular, the printability, the low temperature drying and the ability to print fine lines and gaps down to 80 microns has created interest. We believe our offerings are somewhat unique.”
Sun Chemical, Toyo Ink and Ciba are utilizing their experience in ink and pigments to create these new products.
“As the global leader in printing inks, Sun Chemical possesses a breadth of expertise in formulation, printing processes and applications development and testing,” Mr. Davie said. “We are leveraging these skills as we work with our customers and partners to develop new solutions for the electronics market. We are also investing in people and infrastructure, and have created a dedicated electronic materials R&D team.”
Mr. Koga noted that for more than a century, Toyo Ink has been a global innovator in printing ink production, an area that has a large impact on final production costs and print quality, and that has helped the company successfully develop products for the RFID and printed electronics markets.
“Leveraging our core and electronic materials technology, we succeeded in developing the Rexalpha series of conductive silver paste offering unrivaled printability and print performance,” Mr. Koga said.
Mr. Koga added that Toyo Ink’s work on RFID spans a wide variety of printing processes.
“In addition to standard conductive inks for screen printing, we’ve boosted our lineup of silver inks for flexo and gravure printing processes, allowing for higher productivity,” Mr. Koga said. “In the area of improved drying properties, with heat-drying Rexalpha for screen printing, we were able to form a conductive circuit at low temperatures in a short drying time. Moreover, we were able to develop a UV conductive silver ink, making further strides in improving the drying properties. These technologies are essential to the future of the electronics markets, namely in the production of flexible printed circuit boards and electrode terminals. Toyo Ink’s latest advances in fine pattern printing, such as the realization of silkscreened conductive silver paste in 20-micron thicknesses, will also help end users realize higher productivity levels.”
Mr. Angehrn also pointed to his company’s experience as being a key to developing new products.
“A specific example of this is the low temperature drying of the Xymara Electra inks, meaning that post sintering is no longer a requirement,” said Mr. Angehrn. “This has opened up possibilities for printing on cheaper, non-heat resistant substrates, even directly onto packages, etc. The launch of the Xymara Electra conductive screen inks represents a first entry into the conductives market for Ciba Corporation. For the future, we are already looking at prototype gravure and flexo inks and intend to bring formulations to the market using particles from our fundamental research. We believe that we can utilize our long experience supporting the printing market and our expertise in R&D to bring innovation to the market.”
As the market for RFID and printed electronics continues to grow, the need for conductive inks will expand, and ink manufacturers will play a critical role in the future success of the market.