Printable electronics will transform supply chain visibility

With the rise of additive manufacturing, much media attention has overlooked the potential that exists in conventional printing systems.

Unlike 3D printing, inkjet systems are built for mass production, employing rollers to transfer ink onto the surface being printed, whether that be paper or plastic. Were this technology to be effectively applied to the production of integrated circuits and antennae, then it could completely transform the market for RFID devices, and unlock greater potential for the Internet of Things (IoT).

Currently, most passive RFID tags cost a minimum of 5 cents per tag, which is far too expensive for widespread use in consumer packaged goods, for example.

The reason it is difficult to produce tags at scale for a lower price is that the traditional manufacturing technique used to make integrated circuits and conductive antennae, the basic components used in passive RFID tags, is copper-etching, a process that requires several phases and wastes as much as 70% of the material. Whilst etching is considered an efficient process overall, it places a floor on the minimum cost of production.

As such, the application of inkjet printing systems to the production of microchips is something that has been talked about for some time, with silver or copper ink used as a conductor. Unfortunately, many circuits produced using the latter have suffered poor performance, whilst those using the former have been uneconomical.

Nonetheless, there are potential ways around this problem. Researchers have explored the use of graphene particles as a component of conductive inks in place of silver Nano-particles, with promising results. In October 2015, a team led by Dr Tawfique Hasan of the Cambridge Graphene Centre (CGC), in collaboration with local company Novalia, announced the successful development of a commercially-viable system which prints at a rate exceeding 100 metres of material a minute. Moreover, the cost of the graphene ink used is around £40 per kg, compared to a cost of at least £1,000 per kg in the case of silver-based inks.

Another Cambridge-based company exploring manufacturing potential in this area is PragmatIC, a flexible electronics manufacturer which has developed its own fab-in-a-box manufacturing design; FlexLogIC. The company claims that FlexLogIC can offer up-front capital costs up to 1000 times less than a silicon fab (manufacturing facility), and a low production cost of less than 1 cent per flexIC. Furthermore, PragmatIC, which has received backing from ARM Holdings as well as leading RFID provider Avery Dennison, claims that FlexLogIC allows it to automate the complete manufacturing process. The company expects the system to reach commercialisation in 2017, and plans to sell it to supply chain partners.

With the lower cost of production, RFID tags will become economical for use in a range of new applications, such as smart packaging. This will provide supply chains with visibility down to the item level, a level of granularity that has thus far come at a significant cost. These visibility gains will result in substantial financial benefits, as supply chains become far better at locating and securing inventory.

A study by Harvard Business School found that 8% of all retail items are out of stock at any given time, whilst consultancy Kurt Salmon has argued that the figure can be as high as 20% for items with many size or colour combinations. With RFID systems in place, the likelihood of stock-outs can be reduced by as much as 80% according to one research study, as the improved visibility generated by the technology allows retailers to locate and replenish their stock far more rapidly. Conversely, item-level visibility also allows buffer stock to be reduced, allowing cost savings on both over and under-stocking.

Furthermore, visibility at the item-level allows retailers to keep much tighter control over shrinkage, which cost an estimated $45.2bn in the US during 2015, according to the National Retail Federation. A notable success in this area is the French sporting goods retailer Decathlon, which reported that the deployment of RFID across its 951 stores had the impact of reducing shrinkage by 9% in 2014.

It is important to note that printable RFID tags are still held back by a lack of economies of scale, as Scott White, the CEO of PragmatIC, has himself cautioned, “These kinds of applications have proven (and still growing) market opportunities, but generally need more scale and maturity in the manufacturing chain in order to achieve the potential cost reductions offered by flexible electronics.”

Nonetheless, with the success of existing solutions, and with the expected cost reductions to the manufacturing process, RFID will become a lot more practical for many industries very soon.

Source: Transport Intelligence, November 23rd 2016

Author: Alex Le Roy