RFID and Conductive Inks

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 03.14.11

The market for RFID and conductive inks continues to expand, as new applications and opportunities continue to emerge.

The market for printed electronics (PE) continues to enjoy growth, as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), thin-film photovoltaics (PV), printed batteries and sensors, greeting cards and toys and many more products start to move from the lab to production.

The premise is simple: If a company can produce disposable printed electronics systems though high speed roll-to-roll or sheetfed processes, they could reduce the costs of manufacturing dramatically. That would, in turn, open the door to an incredible array of new products.

IDTechEx, the leading consultant in the PE field, places the potential of the market at $300 billion by 2026; if the market even reaches half of that number, that is still a huge business opportunity.

Inks and coatings are a key driver in printed electronics, with technologies ranging from metals such as silver and copper to carbon nanotubes. Because of the potential of the market, ink manufacturers large and small are developing products, with large multi-national companies such as Sun Chemical and DuPont to well-funded start-ups such as Plextronics, Kovio and PolyIC.

“Printed electronics is enjoying modest recovery in display applications,” said Roy Bjorlin, global commercial director, Electronic Materials, Sun Chemical. “However, photovoltaics applications, including thin film and crystalline silicon (c-Si), are experiencing dramatic growth. Printed materials such as silver and aluminum pastes are in high demand.”

Scott Gordon, regional market segment manager, DuPont Microcircuit Materials, said that the market for conductive inks continues to expand.

“Conductive inks have a long history of use in automotive, MTS and other applications, and more recently the photovoltaics industry has been a key high-growth area,” Mr. Gordon said.

“There continue to be several strong markets in what might be referred to as the ‘traditional’ PE industry - including bio sensors, EL, and MTS,” Mr. Gordon said. “Clearly the strongest of the ‘emerging’ PE market is thin film photovoltaics (TFPV) as many companies are commercial today, and others are making great progress towards becoming commercial. There remain several other emerging PE markets that have made a lot of progress, and where there is growing interest - smart packaging, smart cards with low power displays, printed batteries, printed (chipless) RFID - most of these markets lack a true ‘Killer Application.’ So far it seems the most success has been in niche applications.”

“We have seen increased interest in the RFID space, as our product portfolio allows for various needs to be fulfilled by either our conductive screen and flexo inks or conductive thermal transfer ribbon technology,” said David Wald, senior manager, business development at International Imaging Materials, Inc. (IIMAK). “RFID, while a growing market segment, has not approached the forecasted market size from years ago. That said, the numbers of applications and scope of the projects point to a market that is attractive and can be well and cost effectively served through printed electronics.”

“The market for conductive inks has been very strong in 2010 and into the early part of 2011,” said Stuart Ganslaw, vice president - business development at Creative Materials, Inc. “Conductive inks and adhesives are finding significant growth in thin film solar cells, plastic and glass touch screens, e-readers and LED attachments to mention just a few applications.”

The RFID market is particularly cost-conscious, and as a result, interest in silver paste has slowed down.

“It appears the interest in RFID antennas produced via printed silver paste is not expanding,” said Mr. Bjorlin. “The use of silver paste as an antenna has always struggled to meet price targets attainable with stamped aluminum, copper or by conventional printed circuit subtractive process. The enormous rise in silver prices over the past few years has further impacted interest in producing printed RFID antenna using silver paste.”

As an example, NovaCentrix is having success with its Metalon copper-oxide reduction screen ink.

“The recent advent of very-low-cost inks plus the high-volume/high-speed processing tools has touched an interest in the broader RFID market,” said Stan Farnsworth,vice president marketing for NovaCentrix. “I can say that several of the leading RFID manufacturers have come to us because of what these new technologies do to their cost numbers for antennae production, and therefore to the types of markets they are able to address. RFID is more cost-sensitive than many PE markets, and it is very important to have high performance at very low cost.”

Global Recession and Recovery

The recession impacted virtually all business sectors, and a new R&D-driven area such as printed electronics was not immune to the economic downturn.

“Both the RFID and printed electronics market sectors were hit hard by the global recession in late 2008 into 2009 but have recovered as credit eased,” Mr. Ganslaw said. “Many of the companies in these sectors were not yet profitable and had to reduce their R&D efforts until additional capital was available. Even though credit is not flowing as freely as it was prior to the recession, we have seen many start-ups move forward with their development efforts and product launches starting in early 2010. This trend continues as we enter 2011.”

“With finite dollars to spend and a more risk averse tendency due to the state of the global economy, many companies slowed the adoption process of printed electronics during the recession,” Mr. Wald noted. “This trend seemed to turn more favorable in 2010, continuing in 2011, with PE in general and RFID in specific to benefit from the economic upswing. Inquiries regarding RFID have increased over the past few months, both for our inks and thermal transfer ribbon products.”

“The recession seemed to impact the emerging printed electronics applications much less than other, more established electronic industries,” Mr. Gordon noted. “The larger PE conferences were well attended in 2008 and 2009 in comparison to other electronics conferences. There does appear to be a recovery in that many companies are increasing their investments.”

New Growth Areas for PE

One of the keys to printed electronics is the innovative work being conducted on new applications at universities, research centers and companies.

“There is no lack of research into materials and enabling processing of those materials,” Mr. Gordon said.

“Display technologies such as organic light emitting diodes (OLED), continue to hold promise for new uses for printed materials,” Mr. Bjorlin said.

“We have seen a need for both the printing of conductive traces down to as low as 25-50 micron width,” Mr. Ganslaw said. “This compares with 150-250 micron width lines from conventional inks. We have developed fine-line conductive inks that meet the needs of this market. In addition, we see a growing demand for b-stageable conductive adhesives which fully bond in a secondary curing step that is suitable for high volume automated assembly.”

RFID and conductive ink manufacturers are understandably optimistic about the opportunities in printed electronics.

“We are optimistic with respect to RFID, as we are becoming more involved with several interesting possibilities,” Mr. Wald said. “We are realistic in our expectations, given the adoption rate of the technology over the past decade in combination with the forecast for the next several years. The adoption curve could still be accurate in slope, but it seems to have been pushed out a number of years from what was thought in the early 2000s.”

“Our expectations are very positive in the coming years for printed electronics,” Mr. Ganslaw said. “Both conventional inks as well as nano-materials are being custom developed to meet specific customer needs. We feel that the willingness to customize a product to meet the stringent needs of a specific application is a key advantage specialty materials producers must offer to help advance this market.”

“We expect continued development of new end use applications, and development of high performance, low cost materials and processes that will enable the new products to win in the marketplace,” Mr. Gordon said. “DuPont has long been successful in this area due to close working relationships with our customers, which permits us to match our science with the growing needs of the marketplace.”

“I expect 2011 and 2012 to be critical years, as these new materials and processing tools move through the product adoption phase with these RFID clients and make their way into use for standard products,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “If the aggressive pricing needs can be met, RFID is very attractive from a supplier’s perspective because of the potential volumes of the product.”

For more information on the RFID and conductive ink market, including new applications being developed, please see www.printedelectronicsnow.com.