Happy Birthday—You’re Fired: Printed Electronics Eliminates Barcodes

 In 101

We just celebrated the 40th birthday of the barcode and once again its future is in question.birthday_parties_1 We’ve heard it since the beginning of barcoding. As a learned friend said, any major technology changes that require barcode users to invest thousands of dollars to retool retail frontlines or supply chains will take decades to implement. As revolutionary as barcode technology has been, it was over 20 years from the 1952 patent award to Silver and Woodland to the first store scan of a UPC symbol in 1974. Nevertheless new technologies are emerging and we can imagine how they could replace barcodes, even if our imaginations are a bit ahead of the actual capabilities or costs of the successor technologies. Consider the RFID hype of recent years. [hr]

There is, however, a new technology called printed electronics that piques the imagination anew. If that doesn’t sound much like new technology, you may be confusing it with “printed circuit boards” which is a misleading name for very old technology. What we refer to as printed circuit boards are not printed at all, considering that printing is an additive process—adding circuit traces to an otherwise bare substrate. Printed circuit board fabrication is a subtractive process, starting from a solid layer of copper and chemically removing everything that isn’t a circuit board, leaving only the traces and connector pads.

Thin Film Electronics in Oslo, Norway, whose tagline is “Memory Everywhere” has pioneered a way to print memory circuits. And what is a barcode? Jerome Schwartz, former CEO of Symbol Thinfilm MemoryTechnologies referred to the barcode as “portable, disposable memory”—albeit a very small amount of memory, 13 numerical digits in the case of a UPC.  What Thin Film is doing is a low cost, high volume form of RFID with one huge difference: no silicon. Right now Thin Film is producing passive memory tags with up to 36 bits of memory capacity—enough to accommodate over 68 billion different digital combinations and solve virtually all of the data capacity problems currently facing conventional barcodes. [hr]

Printed Electronics Adding logic which requires transistors is the next step. Logic gives the tag a whole new world of sensing functionality. For example, in addition to  identifying the item the tag can also sense the storage time and temperatures of perishable foods or drugs. A blood oxygen sensor in now in  development: by sensing the contents of a package, this technology would have the ability to confirm the identity of the package, making it much more  difficult to fraudulently package fake drugs in a lookalike package. [hr]

The printed memory tag with its near field communications range would finally make automatic checkout possible in a retail store. The cost of the tag  and the inability to control random radio signals has been an insurmountable obstacle for RFID. Printed electronics could change that. Good ‘bye store frontlines, the highest cost in a grocery store after the groceries themselves.

At their 40th birthday, barcodes are nowhere near being fired—yet. But this may be a first glimpse at what could actually do it and I can’t imagine it taking another 20 years.


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