Chipless RFID: the End Game

7 May 2006 (Last Updated May 7th, 2006 18:30)

Chipless RFID tags offer the tantalising prospect of being printed directly on products and packaging for just 0.1¢, and could one day replace 10 trillion barcodes a year. Raghu Das, IDTechEx, looks at the promise of chipless RFID – and the hurdles the technology will have to overcome.

Radio frequency identification is a powerful enabling technology with ever-widening application. However, potentially the largest applications of RFID, such as consumer packaged goods, postal items, drugs and books, can only be fully addressed if tag prices drop to under 1¢ including fitting them in place. There are many paybacks from doing this but, even taken together, they do not justify a higher cost. These largest applications offer potential sales of ten trillion tags yearly but silicon chips will always be too expensive to form the basis of more than a tiny proportion of such tags. Even without the expense of a silicon chip, a fitted cost means that, like 95% of barcodes today, the majority of highest volume RFID tags must be applied directly to products and packaging to achieve a fitted cost of well under 1¢.

WHAT IS CHIPLESS RFID?

RFID tags that do not contain a silicon chip are called chipless tags. The primary potential benefit of the most promising chipless tags is that eventually they could be printed directly on products and packaging for 0.1¢ and replace ten trillion barcodes yearly with something far more versatile and reliable.

"The next ten years will see a rapid gain in market share for chipless tags."

The mainstream types of chipless tags are digitally encoded and work at a range of more than 1mm, like silicon chips. Their potential markets go beyond the lowest cost/highest volume potential markets because they have other attributes beyond cost.

Indeed, today they are sold for a higher price than silicon chip tags in some cases and lower cost in others. That will continue to be the case. Unique signatures, analogue artefacts such as the magnetically encoded stripe in a banknote or microwave reflecting fibres in security paper can be sensed from 1mm away and therefore just about fit into a definition of RFID, but they have little application beyond anti-counterfeiting. They are therefore only briefly discussed here and are omitted from our statistics.

The next ten years will see a rapid gain in market share for chipless tags. The numbers sold globally will rise from 5 million (0.4%) in 2006 to 267 billion (45%) in 2016. By value, chipless versions will rise from $1.2m (0.1%) in 2006 to $1.39bn (13%) in 2016. This second statistic is more modest because most of the increase in penetration will be by price advantage. Including the infrastructure, software and services, there will be a $2.8bn market for chipless RFID systems in 2016. Thereafter, chipless tags will rapidly come to dominate the RFID market as the most technically capable chips, such as financial cards containing microprocessors, 5.8GHz tags for non-stop road tolling or ultra wide band tags for real
time location systems will continue to be made using silicon chips.

MANY CHIPLESS TECHNOLOGIES BUT FEW WINNERS

The first generation of chipless technologies did not meet open standards for use by many service providers and no attempt was made to write such standards for them. There were many chipless technologies offered, including acoustomagnetic, swept RF inductor capacitor arrays and electromagnetic RF sputtered film, each a multi-bit version of one of the three types of anti-theft tag in common use. Others have been in the form of diode arrays, Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW) devices and chemicals that emit high frequencies when moved. However, only acoustomagnetic tags for error prevention in healthcare and SAW tags for non-stop road tolling and manufacturing have achieved sales above one million tags.

"The first generation of chipless technologies did not meet open standards for use by many service providers."

The acoustomagnetic tags of AstraZeneca come out in front and 4.5 million continue to be used every year. However, it is difficult to reduce the cost of this design further and it has performance limitations such as rigidity. The main characteristic of most of the first generation chipless technologies was that they were pursued by small, undercapitalised companies in the main and they had technical limitations that were troublesome in the marketplace.

SECOND-GENERATION CHIPLESS TAGS

In contrast to first-generation chipless tags, SAW tags can be improved technically and cost-reduced a great deal, and they store enough data and operate at a popular frequency used by conventional chip RFID. This means they can form the basis of large closed and open systems. Indeed, initial work has been done by EPCglobal to incorporate SAW capability in the standards it develops within ISO.

Two other technologies are also very promising here. New participants have come up with electromagnetic tags based on nothing more than printed stripes of conductive ink on paper or low-cost plastic film. In addition, about 40 companies are working on Thin Film Transistor Circuits (TFTCs) – most of them capable of being printed at high speed on low-cost plastic film. TFTCs can have the same electronic circuit as that in the silicon RFID chip so, subject to limitations of the materials used, they can employ the same frequencies and standards as chip-based RFID. The ability to operate at 13.56MHz is extremely important as 55% of tags ever made have operated at this frequency and the figure will be over 70%
in 2016. It is the preferred frequency for cards, tickets, library, laundry, pharmaceutical and postal items.

"Second-generation chipless technologies are being backed by some of the world's largest companies."

The main business characteristics of second-generation chipless technologies are that they are being backed by some of the world's largest companies and some well-capitalised small ones. Many of them are in a position to be both sellers and users. They include IBM, Hewlett Packard, Xerox, 3M, Toshiba, Dai Nippon Printing, Toppan Printing and Samsung. Packaging and paper giants such as Mreal, MeadWestvaco and International Paper are also involved. However, there are impediments to even these technological routes.

In addition, these technologies share the attributes of employing non-toxic materials and potentially low-cost production facilities compared to silicon.

SPECIFIC APPLICATIONS

There are however a number of sectors for which chipless tags are ideally suited, such as books at manufacture, libraries, laundry, pharmaceutical, consumer goods, archives, postal, smart tickets, banknotes and other high-volume secure documents.

The best sectors for chipless are nevertheless items (books at manufacture, library, laundry, pharmaceutical, consumer goods, archives, postal, smart tickets, banknotes, and other high volume secure documents, and high-value logistics. Other sectors may include air baggage, animals, and human applications such as prisoners, people on parole, in hospitals or care homes, vulnerable invalids, and visitors to leisure facilities and theme parks.

The most promising chipless technologies will be best directed at certain application sectors. Even then, they are not suitable for all opportunities within these application sectors and in some, such as air baggage and animals, the standards are already against them.

AUTHOR

Raghu Das is CEO/MD of IDTechEx. He has a BA Natural Sciences degree from Cambridge University, where he studied physics. He has been closely involved with the development of RFID and printed electronics for over six years, carrying out consultancy in Europe, USA, Asia and the Middle East. He has lectured on RFID, smart packaging and printed/organic electronics at over 200 events and conferences around the world and is author of several IDTechEx publications