A new production process developed by a UK startup could reduce the cost of NFC tags to significantly under five cents a unit, making it practical for tags to be used in a wide array of new application areas.
NFC tags could cost just a few cents in the near future, according to Allan Goodman of Additive Process Technologies (APT), who told NFC World the company has developed a new production method that could represent the tipping point for mass production and distribution.
APT's process involves a new way of packaging a traditional IC (integrated circuit) or PIC (printed integrated circuit) into an NFC tag product.
Goodman told NFC World: "Our process takes a lot of the cost out of the tag manufacturing process, taking away the plastic (inlay), the expensive conductive adhesive and expensive inks, using the lowest cost materials to produce a tag instead, in one efficient step."
Goodman maintains that despite over a decade of hype and promises for a sub-five cent tag, it still does not exist — except for APT's newly developed 'holistic' process.
On the manufacturing process, he states that unlike within the UHF spectrum band, where antenna electrical quality is not as critical, RF operating at 13.56 megahertz requires a reasonably high quality antenna and a good quality bond to the IC. "The better these two factors, the better the tag performance," notes Goodman, continuing: "Current manufacturing processes also require a dielectric crossover and silver link to bridge the ends of a 13.56MHz coil; APT's process eliminates this crossover design altogether."
Goodman states that the traditional, almost universal, process for antenna manufacture is etched aluminium or copper, or die-cut metal. UHF antennas can use thin depositions of silver inks, but these are becoming increasingly expensive. To date, so called 'nano' inks don't make the grade either because they are too expensive to mass produce, he claims.
On nano inks, Goodman adds: "More binder gives better adhesion but diminished conductivity. This is the case with all inks." He continues: "Ink sintering processes are available too, but they're generally substrate-constrained, expensive and not as conductive as bulk metal. In all but a very few cases, antenna and IC are seen as separate elements, which they are, but they also need to be connected. That's where APT's integrated process shines like no other," he claims.
"Conventional processes generally use expensive anisotropic conductive paste (ACP) or film (ACF) to connect IC to antennas on an inlay substrate, typically PET, which is an increasingly expensive petrochemical material.
"However, APT's process, building in one continuous operation, electroplates a copper antenna, in situ, directly onto the individual pads of the IC or PIC and on virtually any desired substrate," he explains.
Goodman continues: "A huge amount of NFC is about peer-to-peer, NFC-enabled device-to-device communication. But on the tag side, for ubiquitous item level RFID and NFC, which is key to the 'Internet of Things', an essential and enabling component of the value chain will be an ultra low cost robust tag and sensor attach manufacturing process.
"We want to grow this market, but we don't see it ever growing unless the prices for tags come down. At the moment NFC tags are 15 cents to 30 cents each; you'll never see consumer packaged goods companies buying into that, it will never happen. Dropping the price is the only way you'll ever get to the Internet of Things on the tag side."
APT's manufacturing process results in product functionality and process flexibility especially at HF (the NFC frequency), as a direct copper connection providing the lowest ohmic contact resistance between antenna and IC/PIC gives the absolute best possible performance and robustness, with less material, making it also low-cost, notes Goodman.
He explains: "Because APT's system plates directly to the IC/PIC pads, there is zero requirement for ACP/ACF and associated capital equipment. The IC/PIC doesn't have to be flipped using complicated 'flip-chip' equipment. Because APT's system can use even paper substrates, there is no requirement for an intermediate inlay, therefore limited conversion."
Additionally, says Goodman, APT's process is designed to change horses in mid-stream in response to customer demand, quickly shifting between UHF and HF, from size to size and between tag and antenna designs.
Finally, he told NFC World that the current system is one metre wide reel-to-reel, and production systems will be built to produce well in excess of a billion RFID-NFC tags per year.
APT is currently looking for a strategic investor or venture capitalist funding to put the process into volume manufacturing.