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When milk cartons start broadcasting

 

No-stress shopping – innovative technology such as displays and in particular RFID chips should put an end to lines at supermarket checkouts.The trading group Metro is already testing “transmitting labels”(below) in everyday use at its “Extra Future Store” in Rheinberg (above).

Düsseldorf (ots) - Saturday afternoon, and the weekly family shopping is about to begin. And unlike in earlier times, it is now "mega easy” in the supermarket or furniture store, in the bookshop or the DIY center.No whining children, no lines at the cash desks,no unfriendly staff. Wouldn't work? Many experts are convinced that RFID chips will play a crucial role in making such wishful thinking a reality. In future, intelligent labels could be affixed to any kind of item, including milk cartons, paperback books, T-shirts and CDs – the list is endless. RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification. At the core of this technology are flat chips of varying sizes that use an antenna to send data by radio to a reader.These data include details such as price and manufacturer, shelf-life and country of origin. Because radio transmission is used,data transfer is extremely rapid. This also helps to significantly speed up shopping – as soon as the customers reach the cash desk their bill is already waiting. “We regard RFID as one of the key technologies for the retail trade of the future”, says Zygmunt Mierdorf, the Metro Management Board member whose responsibilities include IT.

High-tech ink for the label of the future

The RFID chips do still have one drawback however: as long as they are manufactured using standard silicon technology they are much too expensive for mass production. Their price is still hovering around the 30 to 50 cent level – a factor of at least 100 too much. The right production technology is therefore the key to the kind of electronics that would be produced in quantities of several hundred billion items a year and disposed of along with the product packaging. “And that's why we are currently working on making the silicon chip material printable in nanoscale size”, explains Dr.Ralf Anselmann,Head of Research of the Degussa Science to Business Center Nanotronics in Marl, where the world's leading specialty chemical company has combined all of its nanotechnology and electronics activities. For the RFID revolution to take place, apart from the electrical properties involved the printing technologies will also need to be further developed. “We already have the right base material”, confirms Anselmann, brandishing a phial containing a fluid.This “high tech ink” will be used in future for printing the chip structures required directly onto labels and for other purposes, he says.Continued development is ongoing in collaboration with partners at the Nanotronics Center.

The new technology is leading to some fascinating applications: for example, stocktaking at the start of the year, which absolutely no one enjoys, is set to become a thing of the past because the stock is permanently up-to-date. And the yoghurt will signal that its shelf-life is about to expire early enough for the supermarket manager to be able to get a special purchase order underway. In future, when a novice to clothes washing is about to wash white shirts and red socks together, scanners built into the washing machine will send a kind of Morse code SOS after checking back with the labels sewn in. So it's no wonder that the future belongs to the clever label. The consulting firm A.T.Kearney (Chicago) forecasts that using the chips would allow trade to increase its profits by seven percent. “RFID represents the greatest opportunity for the self-adhesive products industry in the next ten years”, expects Jules Lejeune, Managing Director of FINAT (The Hague, Netherlands), the European association dedicated to the self-adhesive labeling industry. No less than 27 billion m2 of release liners were sold on the world market in 2004 – practically the size of Belgium or 2.7 million football pitches.

Labels with radio chips printed onto them are still in the conceptual stage,however. Although it will certainly take several more years of development before they are available for mass production, even now, constant optimization by the industry has already made self-adhesive materials significantly more practicable. This has made our everyday lives easier in many respects: we don't have to lick envelopes and stamps any more, and adhesive tapes have made diapers and hygiene items much easier to change. And there is one less chore for the assistant at the meat counter in the supermarket to take care of – she now simply uses the label that her scales print out to seal the bag directly.

Sophisticated chemistry on stamps

Behind these apparently simple everyday things lies some quite sophisticated chemistry in which Degussa in turn plays a crucial role. The type of system consists of four different layers. Take the example of a label: it consists of a medium, a carrier made out of paper or plastic onto which liquid silicone is first applied, and which is then cured into a firm layer. In the next stage an adhesive is applied and then the label itself is laminated. And here is the really clever part: the wafer-thin separating layer of silicone – or to give it its chemically exact name, silicone acrylate or silicone epoxide – ensures that the adhesive only performs the function it was designed to do the second time it is used. Although an adhesive address label sticks very well onto an envelope, it is still very easy to peel it off from its carrier. “Wafer-thin” still doesn't quite express how thin the releasing layer actually is. One square meter of surface area normally requires just one gram of coating that is a mere thousandth of a millimeter thick.

The Degussa Oligomers & Silicones Business Unit (Essen) enjoys a leading position worldwide in these releasing agents that are in such high demand in so many areas. Recently the unit enhanced its activities in this field with the addition of a new technology. “Our aim here in particular is to continue to encourage the market to adopt UV technology”, explains Helmut Brus, Global Marketing Manager RC Silicones. In around 90 percent of cases the silicone is still dried nowadays using heat treatment after it has been applied. However, there are many advantages to using ultraviolet radiation as opposed to the thermal alternative, which is why it is making rapid progress. For instance, it leads to substantial energy savings. In addition,when the thermal process is used the paper substrates have to be laboriously re-moisturised.There is no need to do this with UV equipment.

And what is more, temperaturesensitive materials can now also be used. And there is another advantage: the equipment needed for UV cure is much more compact.With a machine speed of 1,000 meters per minute, the drying ovens occupy a space of 65 meters in length,whereas the length required by comparable UV equipment is just 2.5 meters. “Certainly, what our customers find particularly attractive is that they can use these methods to produce labels at around 10 percent cheaper, and cause far less waste in the process, because the medium, the carrier, can be so incredibly thin”, explains Dr. Philipp Tomuschat, Head of the Labels Project for RC Silicone in Essen. Over the past few years Degussa has developed a complete“ construction kit” of silicone acrylates for this purpose, which it can use to produce many tailor-made combinations.

Depending on the particular application, they can be made to release more easily or less easily. “What makes our systems special is their high stability. This ensures that products always have the same constant properties, so that the adhesive laminates can be used even over a longer period”, explains Dr. Winfried Hamann, Head of the new technical center.

Degussa market leader in UV silicones

The demands that users place on the release coatings are continuing to multiply. The latest trend is for printed yet otherwise transparent films for premium goods such as perfumes, alcoholic drinks or CDs. Form labels – such as those used by mail order companies and booksellers – are also becoming increasingly more sophisticated. If customers are not satisfied with their goods they can send them back in no time today – all the adhesive labels they need to do this are already enclosed in the package in which their product was sent. These labels are now even used for carrying advertising messages.

Degussa is clearly the market leader in the area of UV curing silicones. Today, the specialty chemicals group sells UV curing silicones throughout the world under the brand name TEGO® RC, and increasing numbers of users are discovering their advantages. This is why Annegret Lange, who is in charge of selling silicone release coatings, is confident: “We are convinced that we will significantly expand our market share on a long-term basis. ”And it is particularly the combination of label and RFID chip, of print and adhesive, of present and future, that could prove to be a “dream team” duo within the foreseeable future.

Degussa is the global market leader in specialty chemicals. Our innovative products and system solutions make an indispensable contribution to our customers' success, which we sum up by our claim "creating essentials". In fiscal 2004 Degussa's 45,000 employees worldwide generated sales of 11.2 billion euros and operating profits (EBIT) of 965 million euros.

Contact: Hannelore Gantzer Spokeswoman Corporate Communications T +49-211-65041-368 F +49-211-65041-527 hannelore.gantzer@degussa.com

 

 



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