By Earl Wilken
Look ahead at the printing industry’s next decade, and you’ll come to realize that radio-frequency identification (RFID) is the promising new area for the graphic arts. It’s promising, but virtually nonexistent today as a part of commercial printing revenues. To capitalize on the market’s emergence, printers will have to think outside the box, or rather, think on the box. Already, some traditional graphic arts vendors are thinking this way themselves, following the lead of the vendors serving the warehousing, distribution and fulfillment markets.
Today, RFID products are usually tags attached to items such as pallets of products entering a warehouse. The tags, which can be read by a transmitter, bring new efficiencies to warehousing, distribution and even retail operations.
But, at the pallet level, commercial printers are not too involved. Follow the logic that would say individual items on a pallet could be tagged, then go further still to the development of inks and solvents that would turn printed packages and documents into RFID antennas, and you have a trend that appears to live up to the talk surrounding it.
New on the schedule
In a short amount of time, the topic is already appended to the conference schedules of most major graphic arts conferences, including a keynote speech, delivered by a Motorola executive, at the most recent gathering of the erstwhile prepress association IPA. The association has also started a working group to study RFID. Flint Ink, the world’s largest privately owned ink company, is working on conductive inks in RFID applications. These inks, which include finely dispersed conductive particles, allow electricity to flow, and are commonly used in copper-less circuit boards.
Like Flint, pressmakers are gaining an interest. MAN Roland is testing the ways conductive inks run on press, and it is getting positive results.
While some of the traditional graphic arts associations and suppliers ramp up their research, firms on the front lines of selling RFID applications — makers of equipment sold to warehousing, distribution and retail operations — are taking the first steps at customer education.
One of them, Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Zebra Technologies, specializes in bar coding systems, as its name implies. But the firm knows RFID is a potentially large market it can capture. Zebra has started paving the way with a white paper (available on www.zebra.com) that offers a good explanation of how RFID systems could ultimately take fulfillment and distribution to new levels.
Efficiency times infinity
If bar coding, a technology that requires a line of sight for reading, is an efficient imaging system for product management, RFID is efficient product management on steroids. Unlike bar code readers, RFID readers can automatically recognize and differentiate all the RFID tags in their reading field. This simultaneous processing capability provides additionally flexibility for material handling, packaging, and sortation operation. In addition, space concerns in warehousing decrease because, with RFID, there is no need to maintain spacing between objects to ensure they will be read.
The potential to read dozens, or even hundreds, of tags per second builds RFID ideal for high-speed sortation, receiving and other applications. And speed is not the only advantage. RFID tags can carry all the information of bar codes and then some. Tags are available with different memory sizes and encoding options.
“RFID should change more than the way data is collected,” according to Zebra’s white paper, “it should provide new types of actionable information that create opportunities to do things differently and more efficiently. … Organizations can take advantage of ability to track items in more places, without human intervention, to create new features and applications.”
Making RFID affordable
It’s the “new features and applications” part where printers come in to the picture. Right now, for example, RFID tags might run $0.20 to $0.60 cents each. Dan Lawrence of Precisia, the Flint Ink subsidiary that develops and researches conductive inks, notes that today’s RFID tags cost too much to add to the price of say, a tube of toothpaste were RFID to be introduced on the individual package level. The introduction of presses using conductive inks introduces a vastly more economical RFID model as product packages become their own antennas.
According to Lawrence, the marketplace is beginning to see the tremendous opportunity RFID presents. Global use on tags available today is increasing. The interest from retail giant Wal-Mart, he noted, has picked up tremendously, and the giant retailer is undergoing its own study of the technology at its Texas distribution operation.
It was Wal-Mart’s demands that its suppliers adopt bar codes precipitated the widespread use of that technology. A demand from Wal-Mart to move from bar codes to RFID, and from RFID tags to RFID-printed packaging, would do
Getting ready for Wal-Mart
This is not lost on those who hope to enable the next generation of printed packaging. Last year, Flint licensed technology from another firm, R.T. Circuits, to print conductive inks. Lawrence, who is director of technology and commercialization for Precisia, is working on programs with traditional high-speed printing press manufacturers in its own RFID resource center.
Opened last fall, the center provides new product development, product testing, prototyping, reduced product cycle time, and researches expanded business opportunities. The Precisia RFID laboratory produces printed antennas and performs practical testing of tag designs.
The latest development with Precisia comes in the firm of a new partnership with Thin Battery Technology (TBT), Cleveland, to more efficiently capture the expanding market for ultra-thin batteries needed to create “active packaging” i.e., RFID packages that have their own power source.
Both Precisia and TBT are members of the Smart Active Labels (SAL) Consortium, an international interest group of industry leaders dedicated to promoting and developing the use of smart active labels. Precisia sits on the SAL Consortium’s standards committee for materials, ensuring that the team stays at the forefront in standards development for smart labeling technology.
Precisia and Flint are also developing their own conductive and advanced printing inks and electronics technology and processes. Offerings include essential materials for RFID identification and other printed electronics applications, including smart/active packaging and labeling, printed electronics, lighting and displays.
Perhaps the biggest news for printers is on press. According to Lawrence, the printing process is at the point where cylinders can run RFID work at about 1,500 ft. per minute. Several dozen individuals and companies have visited Preicisa’s RFID laboratory looking to get in on the trend, and Lawrence expects the interest from even more firms to increase as word of its potential rises.
‘Any printer will be able to do this’
The possibility has caught the attention of one of the press world’s giants. MAN Roland, the Germany-based pressmaker, has developed its own research initiative on RFID. And its prognosis is good. According to MAN Roland’s Robert Weiss, “any printer will be able to do this.”
MAN Roland’s RFID project is a lab-based operation running on a web press. According to company officials, the application, while needing “extensive further development,” is resulting in print production of functioning transistors.
But in the here and now of RFID, documents like Zebra Technologies’ white paper are exhibiting the benefits of RFID to end users. In the paper, Zebra addresses the end user, the warehouse, fulfillment or retail business. The firm starts out by cautioning that RFID is not a technology to take up out of fear. Adopting RFID means adopting a whole new range of possibilities. It involves change, but is touted to be well worth pursuing because of its wide range of end-user benefits.
As the white paper explains, “Companies who only wish to comply with customer requirements and make no other use of RFID do not need to concern themselves with considering how RFID could improve inventory, warehousing, distribution, logistics and security. … [T]he same tags and systems used to satisfy customer requirements also can be used to improve these and other operations.”
If there is something familiar in RFID, it is the similarity it may share with previous innovations that were seen, skeptically, as too difficult or expensive at first.
“Some product manufacturers,” according to the white paper, “considered bar code shipment labeling a nuisance and a burden when retailers first began requiring it. Today, however, these manufacturers wouldn’t think of operating their distribution centers without bar codes because of the proven efficiency improvements the technology provides. RFID holds the same potential to improve operations.”
Earl Wilken, a veteran graphic arts journalist and contributing editor to the “Graphics Network Print Industry Insider” newsletter, can be contacted at Wilken928580@aol.com.