Transponder News

A news service reporting on developments regarding the use of radio based tagging transponder systems for commerce and scientific applications. Covering the RFID technologies, EAS technologies and magnetic coupled techniques.


The manufacturing challenges

The greatest challenge to the implementation of RFID in the retail sector is creating a sufficient supply of transponders for the projects. Almost every week, another major retailer or organisation, announces that they expect their suppliers/users to convert to RFID within some short period. Companies such as Walmart, Tesco, Meto, US Defence Department, EU Commission and others all feel this power to cause chaos in the lives of their suppliers, yet no-one is consulting the RFID manufacturing industry to see if their expectations are achievable.

In order to produce sufficient transponders for the retail industry, transponders are going to have to be produced at about 7 million transponders PER SECOND. Nowhere in the world is there any part that is produced in this volume. In fact the estimated entire world's production of transponders in 2003, from all suppliers in an industry that is already twenty years old, would have been produced in just 30 seconds on this production line.

The shortage of transponders is one of those problems that many say someone else will sort out and they tend to ignore - possibly feeling that by clapping their hands the problems will disappear.

Transponders comprise basically three parts - namely a chip, an antenna and some form of packaging.

The semiconductor industry produces the chip and are the most mature in their ability to increase volumes with orders. It is possible currently to buy 100 million chips or possibly 1 billion chips with a bit of planning. However in the first quarter of 2004 the semiconductor industry reported that their used capacity had increased to 94% from a 36% a few years before. This increase is partly due to increased orders and also due to downsizing in the past few years which reduced capacity.

Nobody has yet made 100 million UHF transponder antennas. The current techniques are to etch antennas from copper laminated on a plastic medium, or more recently antennas are being printed using conducting inks. The printing process is not straight forward as after the printing comes an attachment process and if this is to be based on soldering, then some form of bonding the ink particles is needed. If the attachment process is going to use epoxy adhesives, then the curing time becomes a problem when attachment rates of 7 million per second are required. Various companies have projects to develop printed antennas suitable for attachment, but volumes of 5 million are large projects.

The last challenge in producing antennas is to attach the chips to the antennas and provide the protective packaging. Various machinery based on the assembly of smart cards is available with thoughputs of 5000 to 20000 per hour. The reason for this restriction of speed relates to the inertia of moving parts in the machinery and the cooling times of the plastics.

The challenge for the RFID industry lies not in the development of the chips, but in the production and assembly of the antennas and the transponders.

Even producing 100 million chips/antennas or their packaging, only feeds the 7 million per second line for some 14 SECONDS!!!

Massive opportunities exist for companies wanting to specialise in high volume transponder assembly.

10 September 2004

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