New printed chip could spark cheaper sensor networks

A working Thinfilm prototype.Thin Film Electronics ASA, a maker of disposable memory used in toys, has developed a way to add computing to its circuits through a partnership with PARC, a Xerox company. This means it can offer thin, disposable tracking tags for a few cents apiece, and it could soon provide a valuable component for the Internet of things.

Thin Film is an Oslo-based company that has been in business since the mid-90s. It has been manufacturing thin-film memory chips that provide about 20 kilobytes bits of storage, which were used in toys and games. But thanks to its partnership with PARC it has added transistors to its circuits, which gives the chips a soupcon of intelligence — enough to perhaps track inventory or send environmental data from a sensor back to the network. It has also added a bit more memory.

Davor Sutija, CEO of Thin Film, says by the end of next year, the plan is to attach a sensor component to the smart thin-firm circuit to create a low-power and cheap sensor. For now, the thin firm chip by itself could be used for tickets or smart tags. Each thin-film circuit should cost “pennies” to produce.

A low price is important, because it makes the technology far more accessible than RFID or other technology that today is used for tracking high-value inventory. RFID chips are built on silicon and can cost a few dollars, so aren’t practical for everyday items.

Today, the thin-film chips are read via a reader coming into physical contact with the chip, which means they don’t need their own power to broadcast their information. Eventually, if the firm adds a sensor or needs to somehow broadcast the information on the chip, it would need to have a battery attached to the chip. The hope is to have a chip that can broadcast its information by 2013.

The chips are manufactured like a newspaper is, by printing the materials on a thin layer of plastic. It’s the same plastic used to make water bottles extruded in a thin film. The process deposits silver and other metals in a layer tens of nanometers thick to create the actual circuit. A single-print run can make from half a million to 3 million chips, but the process is much cheaper than the traditional silicon process, although the resulting chip also carry far less information and intelligence.

Having a cheap way to store and process small amounts of data at the very edge of the network is an essential item in creating the Internet of things. The cheaper these chips are, the more places one can put them. It won’t replace RFID or even more complex sensors, but it adds another tool in the arsenal for tracking the physical world in the digital one.