Happy Birthday—You’re Fired: Printed Electronics Eliminates Barcodes
Another anniversary of the barcode and once again its future is in question. The demise has been predicted from the beginning. From the start, successful technology is threatened. But change takes decades to implement. As revolutionary as barcode technology has been, it took 20+ years from the 1952 patent to the first store scan of a UPC symbol in 1974. Nevertheless new technologies are emerging which could replace barcodes. Consider the RFID hype of recent years. It was considered the inevitable replacement for barcodes. Until it wasn’t.
What Will Replace the Barcode?
Introducing printed electronics. This is not the same as printed circuits, a misleading name for a mature technology. Printed circuits are not printed at all. Printing is an additive process: adding pigment, or circuit traces, to a substrate. Printed circuit fabrication is a subtractive process, chemically removing everything that isn’t a circuit board from a sheet of copper.
Thin Film Electronics, an Oslo, Norway organization whose tagline is “Memory Everywhere,” is pioneering a way to print memory circuits. And what is a barcode? Jerome Schwartz, former CEO of Symbol Technologies referred to the barcode as “portable, disposable memory”; albeit a very small amount of memory. A UPC contains 13 bytes of data. Thin Film is a low cost, high capacity memory circuit with one important difference: no silicon. Thin Film is producing passive memory tags with massive memory capacity—enough to accommodate over 68 billion different digital combinations and the ability to solve virtually all of the data capacity problems currently facing barcodes.
Thin Film circuitry with logic
Adding logic is the next step. Logic, usually transistors, opens the tag a vast array of sensing functionality. For example, in addition to identifying an item, the tag could also sense the time in storage and range of temperatures it has experienced. This is critical for sensitive foods and pharmaceuticals. A blood oxygen sensor is developing. By sensing the contents of a package, this tag could confirm the identity of the package, guarding it from counterfeit substitutions.
Memory with Sensors
The printed memory tag with its near field communications range would make automatic retail checkout a reality. The cost of the tag and challenges controlling the radio signals has been a challenge for RFID. Printed electronics could change that. Farewell store frontlines, the highest cost in a grocery store after the groceries themselves.
Happy Birthday, barcodes. Your future is still intact. But this may be a first glimpse at what could actually do it and I can’t imagine it taking another 20 years.