The barcode of tomorrow, today

Equipping soldiers on the battlefield, keeping store inventory up-to-date, and preventing counterfeit drugs from entering the supply chain: these may sound like three very different problems, but a technology dating back to World War II called RFID (radio frequency identification) could help solve them all by enabling buyers and distributors of goods to automatically track individual items all the way through the supply chain.

So why isn’t this technology more common? Nobody could find a way to make the tags affordable enough for everyday use–that is, until Dr. J. Stephen Smith, a CITRIS-affiliated researcher and U.C. Berkeley professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, applied a manufacturing process he’d invented called Fluidic Self-Assembly to RFID production.

RFID tags are the barcodes of tomorrow. Your typical RFID tag is a sticker with a glitter-sized silicon chip and a small, flexible antenna. The chip’s integrated circuit is encoded with a unique EPC (electronic product code) before the tag is affixed to a container. Whenever a tag comes within a 10-meter range of an RFID reader, it transmits its code to that reader, which will in turn automatically update the database to reflect the arrival or departure of that object.

Industry and the military have long known the benefits of RFID, which include faster processing of deliveries, better tracking, and a reduction in lost, stolen, and redundant inventory. Because every box of drugs will have a unique, traceable number, RFID provides the Food and Drug Administration with a new means of preventing counterfeit drugs from reaching medicine cabinets. But the high cost of producing the tags prevented widespread use.

The standard manufacturing technique, called Flip-Chip, uses a robotic arm to assemble RFID tags one at time, or about 1,000 per hour. At that rate, tags can be made for 50 cents a piece, too high for lower-cost items.

Enter Fluidic Self-Assembly, a method in which multiple chips are poured into a slurry, then shaken and assembled into a substrate, affixed to plastic, then cut out. In 2002, his Morgan Hill, Calif., company Alien Technology applied FSA, originally invented by Smith to integrate lasers onto silicon, to the manufacture of RFID tags. The results were stunning. With FSA, Alien
can currently product 2,000,000 tags per hour for about 20 cents a pop,
with the price expected to drop to 5 cents in three years.

affordable solution comes just in the nick of time. By 2006, the DOD is
requiring its 43,000 suppliers to affix RFID tags to all merchandise.

any one time the Department of Defense only knows where 60 percent of
the stock they have in inventory is. If you think about it that’s a
pretty bad problem. During the Persian Gulf War they started using RFID
systems for huge containers going into the Gulf and found it made a
huge difference. Now they want to extend that down to smaller items,”
says Smith.

Wal-Mart is placing a similar mandate on its
vendors. At the same time, the FDA is initiating efforts to have drug
manufacturers to apply the tags to boxes of their products as part of
an initiative to reduce drug counterfeiting.

If the cost of
RFID tags had remained high, this would have amounted to a huge
economic burden to manufacturers around the world. As Smith points out,
“at 50 cents apiece, it may not have been feasible for a lot of
companies to take advantage of this technology, but at 5 cents it’s
practically guaranteed.”

Anticipating a boost in demand, Smith
has taken a leave of absence from U.C. Berkeley to serve as CTO of
Alien Technologies, rejoining his former graduate students Mark Hadley
and Jay Tu. In December, Red Herring magazine named Alien as one of its
Top 100 Innovative Companies.

For more information:

Alien Technology

J. Stephen Smith

Red Herring Magazine’s Top 100 Innovative Companies

RFID Journal