Researchers in Germany have come one step closer to realizing a dream of manufacturers, retailers and other companies seeking advanced but inexpensive ways to trace products and materials -- a cheap chip made of plastic that can be printed on foil the same way a newspaper is printed on paper.
Although PolyIC GmbH & Co. KG, a joint venture between Siemens and Kurz & Co. KG, isn't claiming to have developed the first-ever integrated circuit made of polymer, it is taking credit for having created the world's fastest plastic chip to date -- 600KHz -- and having pioneered a technique to print circuits directly onto foils.
"We're still at the beginning of using polymer, an organic material, to mass-produce inexpensive chips that could be used, for instance, as RFID tags, but we're moving steadily ahead," said Wolfgang Mildner, managing director of PolyIC.
Using its technology, PolyIC plans next year to begin production of a plastic 4-bit chip, which could be used for applications such as forgery-proof labeling, according to Mildner. The next step will be a 32-bit chip aimed at applications in the logistics sector.
By 2008, PolyIC hopes to have a chip with a storage capacity of 128 bits and a processing speed of 13.56MHz to comply with RFID (radio frequency identification) standards, according to Mildner.
Today's bar code labels, which many companies hope to replace with RFID tags, have a typical storage capacity of 44 bits.
The prototype plastic chips of PolyIC contain at least four layers placed on a foil substrate made of a special type of polyester. The electrodes consist of conductive polymers. Above them is a semiconductive layer made from poly-3 alkylthiophene, followed by an insulating polymer layer and a counter-electrode.
Mildner referred to the process as "a chip evolving on foil and becoming one."
The plastic chips are only a few square centimeters in area and have a thickness of 1 micrometer, while the electrodes and the semiconductor layer account only for a few hundred nanometers of the total.
In the lab printing process, researchers use stamps to print the conductors. Then they coat the foil with the semiconductor and insulator using a type of squeegee technology that is common in the textile-printing industry.
The goal of PolyIC is to produce RFID chips with a price point of Euro 0.01 (US$0.013), compared to the price of silicon-based RFID chips that range between Euro 0.30 and Euro 0.50, said Norbert Aschenbrenner, a spokesman in Siemens research and development division.
PolyIC was launched after Siemens decided to spin off its plastic chip research activities into the new joint venture with Kurz, which specializes in production of stamping foils, according to Aschenbrenner.
Albrecht von Truchsess, a spokesman for Metro, which is at the forefront of deploying RFID technology in the European retail sector, called the PolyIC development "super."
Metro welcomes all technology advances that will help make the price of RFID chips become "a non-issue," von Truchsess said.
In an interview published Thursday in the German weekly business magazine Wirtschaftswoche, Zygmunt Mierdorf, a Metro board member, said he expects to have the retail group's entire operations -- from the producer and shipper to the warehouse and checkout counter -- equipped with RFID technology within the next 15 years.
Since November, 22 suppliers have been delivering products on pallets marked with RFID tags, according to Von Truchsess. The goal is to have around 100 suppliers using RFID by the end of this year.
Currently, around 20 of Metro's 1,800 stores and distribution centers in Germany are using RFID, according to the spokesman. The goal is 250 by year's end, he said.
Metro has more than 2,500 retail stores and distribution stores worldwide.