Whatever Happened to RFID?

Just a few years ago, RFID technology and printed electronics were expected to march in lock step towards a market for 80 billion tags worth $5 billion in 2010. Ink jet printing of first antennas and later the simple integrated circuits for radio frequency identification was expected to drive the cost of a tag down to $0.06 by now and ultimately to $0.01. This would enable item-level tagging for retail and drive a host of new applications from instant grocery check-out to microwave ovens that would understand how to cook prepared foods and refrigerators that would reorder expired milk. RFID tags would quickly replace bar codes, and RFID would lead the way into printed electronics, with ink jet carrying the banner. Companies sprang up or geared up to exploit the  opportunity.

It is hard to say which has been the more disappointing – the market or the technology. The world’s largest retailer, WalMart, is a microcosm (if it can be a micro-anything) of the RFID situation. In 2003, the company said it would require suppliers to use RFID on cases and pallets by 2007. Item-level tagging would follow by 2010, and, in one test, HP and Lexmark supplied individually RFID-tagged retail ink jet printers to WalMart in late 2005. But by 2008, the average cost of a tag was still well over a dollar and barely 2 billion were produced, compared to 10 trillion bar codes. Item-level tagging has been all but abandoned, though most of WalMart’s largest suppliers do tag their cases and pallets and the retailer saves tens of millions of dollars annually as a result.

Today RFID suffers from a lack of standards and infrastructure and is mostly confined to asset management and tracking and to niche applications such as automated road tolls and car key security. To gain broader acceptance in distribution, it will need major investments in infrastructure, and today’s economy won’t support that, even with the promise of future cost savings. Beyond that, retail RFID must overcome public perceptions that it is a way for Big Brother (governments and corporations) to pry into private affairs by tracking people and goods beyond the sale. Many companies have abandoned RFID, and especially the development of printed organic chips for it.

Ink jet hasn’t fared much better, as other print technologies proved more cost effective for antennas and for many other aspects of printing electronics as well. Ink jet still excels in applying the active (semiconducting) materials, but organic semiconductors are still too slow in electrical response. Start-up Kovio promises to print silicon by ink jet; combine that with Conductive Inkjet Technology’s catalytic inks, and ink jet technology could still cut the price of RFID tags to $0.02 to $0.04 – if the needed infrastructure and item-level demand ever develop. Yet emerging standards call for chip complexity well beyond the capability of ink jet printing. The promise envisioned in 2004 may never be realized.