When you think about ‘smart’ devices – phones and maybe TV’s come to mind, but now the ‘smart’ prefix is being applied in the area of packaging – where it actually predates the first two categories in the consumer world. Whether the label is applied when using different chemicals or other components to keep the contained goods cold, dry or oxygen free, or by using RFID chips to track the shipments, it’s obvious that the smart really does come in more than one form -some of which wouldn’t necessarily be associated to being that smart in the first place. One thing, however, is certain – the packaging industry is growing rapidly – expected to reach $1.45 B by 2023 – with some science fiction-type solutions such as user-guiding drug dispensers and other clever innovations.
The problem is that in these fields RFID tech becomes crucial and the RFID manufacturing process can often cause problems down the line, most commonly slowing the entire packaging manufacturing process down especially if it is a remote process. So could 3D printing solve this problem in the not too distant future?
The chips themselves only need a few elements in order to work – a sensor, radio, antenna, power and some relevant operating function, so they are a potential candidate for 3DP tech to tackle. But, according to IDTechEx’s senior technology analyst, Wendy Kneissl – no, not in the near future. Even though the potential is there and studies surrounding the topic are promising, the current phase of the industry just isn’t mature enough to enable 3D printing of these chips in a manner that would be both sustainable economically and fast enough to have the potential to overthrow traditional manufacturing practices.
Looking at the most burning issues which would need to be solved if using 3DP for manufacturing RFID chips, the speed is the first issue. By using a 3D printer to create circuits, Kneissl estimates the potential number that could be achieved is currently around 30,000 items, whereas the needs of the market are in the billions – and growing. Another issue is the materials – by using silicon-based inks to create the chips, 2D RFID printing can be done in a much more simple manner compared with 3D printing’s requirements – the special raw materials such as nanoparticle silver and the high-grade printing surface materials create challenges – and even more costs.
When discussing the costs, Kneissl also points out that the 3D printers needed to do the job aren’t exactly cheap either – going for $1 million a piece. One of the most debated topics, which always comes up when comparing traditional and additive manufacturing is the economies of scale, which also applies in the smart packaging sector as well.
But even though the current odds first seem to be against 3D printing tech to enter the smart packaging market with force, there are sectors where it could validate its existence already today – in the aerospace business, one of the most potential areas for 3DP overall: “The primary thrust currently is in the aerospace sector, where the ability to 3D print circuitry, for example, directly onto a parabolic wing, simplifies the electronics, leads to lower maintenance and fewer failures, streamlines the manufacturing, and also frees up space for extra payload”, Kneissl states.
Despite this optimism regarding the one specific market, Kneissl doesn’t believe that 3D printing will ever overthrow traditional processes in the RFID market. Personally, I think this opinion is also a bit risky, especially as 3D printing has been mentioned several times when discussing smart printing in general. Therefore narrowing the focus down only to RFID chips might give a slightly skewed image of the potential of the tech – even though still not ready to headline any market as of now.
Feature image by Andrew Magill, licensed under CC