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Is RFID in your future?

Feb 1, 2005 12:00 AM

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Don't miss special seminars and exhibits Print 05 & Converting 05

Printers looking for new revenue sources are increasingly hearing that radio frequency ID (RFID) tags, hailed as an eventual replacement for today’s ubiquitous bar codes, may be the answer they’ve been seeking.

The key word, of course, is "maybe." Some day, marketers or retailers might want RFID chips and antennas incorporated into each individual product package. That demand offers the prospect of combining RFID production with packaging creation, an arena in which high-quality commercial printers should thrive.

The Graphic Arts Show Company (GASC) has focused on RFID and plans a special exhibit area on this specialty as part of this fall’s Print 05 & Converting 05 show.

"The people who are printing the packaging are going to need to integrate this technology in the current package," says Kathy Marx, GASC chair and vice president/chief marketing officer at Flint Ink Corp. (Flint, MI). "It’s a logical step."

Marx cautions however that the RFID opportunity still is evolving and might be years off. Flint Ink has launched its Precisia subsidiary to explore applications of electrically conductive inks in RFID and similar fields. Concrete knowledge in this area is still hard to come by, she said. "We don’t know yet what we will need to know," Marx said—hence the need for a forum like PRINT 05 & CONVERTING 05. "The show will give printers an opportunity to get a feel for what it all means to them," she added. "Companies need to figure out where they fit in."

Antennas are just patterns
Michael Kleper, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) (Rochester, NY), believes printers will indeed have opportunities for growth in RFID. "RFID antennas are simply patterns," he explains. "The process of printing them requires skills and accuracy standards that might be more stringent than for general commercial work. Most modern printing presses, however, should be usable for this purpose. Commercial printers that have technical expertise, skilled workers and up-to-date equipment are well positioned to consider this as a new market."

Kleper notes that most electrically conductive inks today are silver-based and expensive. Moreover, according to Kleper, printing the antenna is only part of the job of producing an RFID tag. Printers must decide whether they want to limit themselves to printing just antennas or invest in additional equipment to produce and attach the circuit chip, as well. "Either way, printers will have to upgrade their knowledge and capabilities to take advantage of the opportunity," says Suzanne Zaccone, president of Graphic Solutions International (Burr Ridge, IL). She cites some lessons her company has learned while becoming a leading RFID product producer.

"Print registration and ink coverage issues become very important when printing conductives," reports Zaccone. "For example, a printed insulator might look as if it is printed perfectly, but it might not work electrically due to microscopic pinholes.

"A flexo registration of five mils (0.005 inches) is pretty good," Zaccone adds. "RFID integrated circuit chips might be only 20 mils on a side and have as many as four to 10 bonding pads in that area. Each ‘bump’ typically is about two mils. Therefore, the print registration must be better than half a bump, or about one mil, just to provide a ‘usable’ bond area."

That registration is roughly the limit of conductive litho inks’ resolving power and finer than flexo inks’ resolving power, according to Kleper. Consequently, two or more layers of conductive ink must be applied in perfect register.

From a sales standpoint, Zaccone says RFID presents the traditional challenge of marketing a leading-edge technology to people who aren’t always early adopters. This requires sales staff training, alertness to cross-selling opportunities, and more customer hand holding than usually would be needed.

Under-promise and over-perform
Zaccone’s company can’t overlook current customers’ service needs while it focuses on the technical aspects of emerging products. "[We can’t] fall in love with our new technologies and forget what brought us our past success," she says. Another risk, Zaccone says, seems to come with the high-tech territory: "Unfortunately, the technology segment in business today has a reputation for failing to meet commitments. We must be sure to under-promise and over-perform."