Chipless RFID - The End Game
Feb 20, 2006 Raghu Das
RFID 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 one cent including fitting them in place. There are many paybacks from doing this but, even taken together, they do not justify more. 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 one cent. A totally new report based on new research by IDTechEx analyses the situation. It is called Chipless RFID Forecasts, Technologies & Players 2006-2016 - this is the only report to assess all the technologies, barriers, players and forecasts for chipless RFID.
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 cents and replace ten trillion barcodes yearly with something far more versatile and reliable.
The mainstream types of chipless tags are digitally encoded and work at more than one millimetre range, 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 higher price than silicon chip tags in some cases and lower cost in others. That will continue to be the case. Unique signature, analogue artefacts such as the magnetically encoded stripe in a banknote or microwave reflecting fibres in security paper can be sensed at one millimetre away and therefore just about fit into our definition of RFID but they have little application beyond anti-counterfeiting. We therefore discuss them only briefly in this report and we omit them from our statistics.
The next ten years will see a rapid gain in market share of 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 $1.2 million 0.1% in 2006 to $1.39 billion - a more modest 13% of all income from RFID tags in 2016 because most of the increase in penetration will be by price advantage. Including the infrastructure, software and services, that is a $2.8 billion market for chipless RFID systems in 2016. Thereafter, chipless tags will rapidly come to dominate the RFID market though the most technically capable chips, such as financial cards containing microprocessors, 5.8 GHz 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 acoustomagnetic tags of AstraZeneca come out in front and 4.5 million continue to be used every year. However, this design is difficult to cost reduce 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
By contrast to the above 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 be 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 forty 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. 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 and we summarise the situation in the table.
Benefits and challenges for the most promising chipless RFID technologies
In addition, these technologies also share the attributes of employing non-toxic materials and potentially low cost production facilities compared to silicon.
Best for specific types of application
The most promising chipless technologies will be best directed at certain applicational sectors. Even then, they are not suitable for many opportunities within these applicational sectors and in some such as air baggage and animals the standards are already against them. The best sectors for chipless are nevertheless items (books at manufacture, library, laundry, pharmaceutical, consumer goods, archives, postal),smart tickets/ banknotes/ other high volume secure documents, air baggage, animals, people such as prisoners, those on parole or in hospitals or care homes, vulnerable invalids, visitors to leisure facilities, theme parks etc, high value logistics.
Read the World's only report covering the Future of Chipless RFID, from IDTechEx: Chipless RFID Forecasts, Technologies & Players 2006-2016.
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