Electronics will do away with paper, and printers will go the way of the blacksmith – that was the conventional wisdom a couple of decades ago. You have only to look around your shopping mall (or your desk) to realize it hasn’t quite worked out that way. And the RFID label, which was to transform the labeling industry, hasn’t – yet. Now comes news of a research project at the New University of Lisbon, Portugal, which could revolutionize the whole field of printed electronics. Silicon-based transistors are powerful, expensive, and rigid. That makes them ill-suited to labeling low cost items like washing powder. The Portuguese project replaces the silicone by a simple sheet of paper coated both sides with semi-conductors made of various oxides. This, say the researchers, gives a transponder which is both cheap and flexible – and ideally suited to further printing or finishing on roll-to-roll machinery.
The Lisbon team is not the only one in Europe to develop printed electronics. Germany’s PolyIC is a commercial company with powerful financial backing (it is jointly owned by Siemens and hot foil specialist Leonhard Kurz). PolyIC’s tags are printed onto a PET substrate and use a 13.56MHz wavelength, and the company, which gets support from the German government, looks well advanced on the road to a commercial roll-out of its technology. So far trials have been made using the new tags in a range of transport tickets, labels and security documents. Experimental use of the technology for baggage labels was tried out by Lufthansa but rejected as not sufficiently secure.
It is difficult for the layman to evaluate rival technologies in the printed electronics field. However, given that PolyIC is now two years down the road from its first successful testing of a non-silicone transponder, it could well be first in Europe with a fully tested, high volume, low cost RFID tag.
Meanwhile things are not standing still in Europe with the “classic” silicone-based RFID tag. Metro Cash-and-Carry stores, in partnership with DHL, now use RFID tags for all pallets delivered to its 89 stores in France, a volume of 1.3 million units per year. Both Metro and DHL are members of the European EPC Competence Center for the development of RF technology.