Item-Level RFID At One Cent? By 2015, Printed Tags Could Do It

In the earlier days of RFID item-level enthusiasm, the talk was that item-level would soar once the per-tag price dropped to five cents. When pricing finally approached that touted-nickel goal, some chains—especially Wal-Mart—upped the ante, insisting on tags for one penny or less. Last week (March 18), a joint U.S.-Korean university research project announced a new approach to item-level RFID, one that is already delivering 3-cent tags and could easily hit 1-cent in volume production.

The engineering differences are extensive, with the approach (a collaboration between Sunchon National University in Korea and Rice University in Houston) abandoning silicon-based tags for printed tags. Printed passive RFID, which could easily be woven into paper and plastic product packaging, has been a common RFID experiment for years, but the universities' 13.56-MHz 1-bit approach also abandons ink-jet printers for a gravure process. It uses single-walled carbon nanotubes for printing thin-film transistors. The schools have crafted a very specific methodology, even down to non-traditional cleaning liquids to prep the dielectric layer.

But even setting aside the price, the technology still has several technical hurdles to clear. The current footprint is about three times larger than today's barcode and it's been testing with a read distance of anywhere from 2 centimeters to 10 centimeters whereas project leaders say that it needs to read at about a full meter—at the very least, a half-meter—to be effective. The current version is 1-bit, but a 16-bit version in the labs will likely address the data storage weakness plus potentially help with the read distance.

"We’re one-tenth of the way in distance," said James Tour, a chemistry professor at Rice and one of the leaders of the project. "The Koreans are saying five years and it will be commercial, somewhere around 2015."

The new item-level approach will require different readers, but they won't need to be radically different. "The frequencies may change a little bit, but the reader cost will be no more than it is now," Tour said.