Paul Muller, RFID Business Unit Leader at EM Microelectronic Marin SA, is responsible for the RFID business and R&D activities at EM Microelectronic. Together with his team of experts, he focuses on the development and marketing of innovative semiconductor components that offer dedicated solutions for a number of sectors, such as wholesale, healthcare, green IOT, and industry 4.0.
EM Microelectronic has been developing and manufacturing integrated circuits for over 40 years and is a renowned supplier of ultra-low power semiconductor products, from RFID, wireless and displays to energy harvesting and battery management solutions. Target markets include consumer electronics, industrial, access control, animal identification and automotive. EM Microelectronic is a fully-owned subsidiary of the Swatch Group.
Anja Van Bocxlaer: How did EM Microelectronic become a developer and manufacturer of integrated circuits?
Paul Muller: The trigger for the founding of EM Microelectronic in 1975 was the so-called quartz crisis: New types of electronic quartz wristwatches conquered the watch market, which, unlike mechanical models, required integrated circuits to divide the frequency generated by the quartz down to second pulses. Subsequently, EM Microelectronic, a subsidiary of the Swatch Group, also supplied electronic components such as applicationspecific circuits for battery-powered devices or Bluetooth to third parties.
The range of products is complex. What are the main competencies on which the portfolio is based?
The essential competence of EM is in designing highly energy efficient semiconductor products. The ultimate goal is to optimize the transformation and consumption of energy. Another core competence is related to the company's history: user interfaces, e.g. leading to custom display technology, including displays and display drivers as well as display touch sensors and sensing interfaces. Smart processing, including cryptography and security as well as nonvolatile memory, complete our broad expertise.
Keyword Marks & Spencer: How and when did EM Microelectronic start developing RFID chips?
With over three decades of experience in RFID, EM Microelectronic is one of the pioneers in this field.
It was 15 years ago that our company was the exclusive chip manufacturer of the first large-volume solution with RFID technology for Marks & Spencer. This project broke new ground, proving that such a project had a strong ROI, and that RFID was a robust solution for it, paving the way for today’s mass adoption of RAIN RFID in retail.
Today, EM Microelectronic still has its own production facilities for semiconductor components in Switzerland with a focus on low power processes for the production of cutting-edge technology, but also uses external semiconductor fabs for manufacturing. Low power optimized production processes are available for the production of cutting-edge technology. EM develops and produces RFID circuits for wireless identification and offers a comprehensive portfolio of Low Frequency (125-134 kHz), High Frequency (13.56 MHz) and Ultra-High Frequency (860-960 MHz) RAIN RFID solutions.
In addition, EM addresses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and proprietary wireless solutions in the 2.4-gigahertz frequency range. In 2015, we released the world’s first combination of RAIN-RFID and NFC in a single component with the dual-frequency chip, a technology we call RAINFC. This unique combination unlocks a tremendous synergy between the B2B use of RAIN RFID and the consumer engagement potential of NFC.
How dependent was the development of the dual-frequency chip on market penetration of NFC mobile phones?
We see ourselves as innovators and trendsetters in the field of RFID. We pursue a vision, identify necessities and try to help our customers with solutions. That's why we launched RAINFC in 2015, even though NFC smartphone coverage was still underrepresented. This vision has quickly been validated by the product’s market adoption, opening the door to additional use cases and the current development of a second generation product.
Back to the solution – what does the dual-frequency solution, RAINFC, have in common with the 'Apparel' industry?
RAINFC is a disruptive technology. From an economic point of view, the retail market has been suffering from major problems and decreasing sales since 2018. Retailers have a problem with conversion rates, a shrinking loyal customer base and declining sales, especially in brick and mortar stores.
Customer engagement has become a key battle for the entire retail world and EM Microelectronic's Dual- Frequency RAINFC technology is a critical contribution to addressing this problem. Increased process efficiency thanks to RAIN RFID is generally recognized, but is insufficient on its own, as it does not address the consumer engagement challenge. Customer engagement is the keyword here and RAINFC the technology that seamlessly combines the two.
What are the challenges in the textile industry?
Here we see three major challenges for the retail sector.
First, the ongoing trend towards e-commerce: retailers must find solutions to bring customers back into brick and mortar stores. The second problem is the dematerialization of shopping in a market dominated by ecommerce, with an inherent counterfeit and grey market problem putting the end consumer potentially at risk. The third challenge is 'Conscious Shopping': 21st century consumers want to make conscious purchases and want information about the origin, material and production ethics of their desired product.
What solutions do you propose?
The most elegant way to provide the consumer with the desired information is, of course, NFC.
If you want to combine traceability, product authenticity and all the shopping options, while also giving the retailer a possibility to integrate customer loyalty, a B2B solution like RAIN-RFID is not an option. NFC offers numerous possibilities in the area of customer loyalty, but not in logistics and supply chain or traceability. Here, R AINFC is the best alternative to address the problem correctly. The current increase in smartphone-based customer loyalty is of great importance here.
Would you say that smartphones have replaced smart cards in terms of customer loyalty?
I would go even further. The smartphone is the hub of the modern customer, the hub that brings together information, social media interaction and cloud data in one place. Physical media will gradually disappear from our lives - from credit cards, hotel room keys and loyalty cards to car keys and, eventually, house keys. Today, identity and access control are a cloud concept and the smartphone is the medium of choice for it.
How do you see the dissemination of the dual-frequency chip?
We have noticed a strong interest in dual- frequency technology for years and it was clear to us that some time could pass between interest and adaptation. It was not so much a question of penetrating the market with NFC-enabled smartphones, but of adoption by the end consumer and the retail industry.
The growth of our dual-frequency platform has been steady since 2015 and we see further acceleration of this development with the tense situation in the retail sector.
In which industries do you see today – in addition to the retail market – sales markets for the dual-frequency chip?
RAINFC technology addresses numerous challenges in a number of industrial verticals, from automotive spare parts tracking and authentication, to drug dispensing systems for the pharmaceuticals industry.
Can you tell us a bit more about the sales trend and thus the integration of dual-frequency solutions over the next five years?
The dual frequency volumes are growing at a double-digit rate annually. With a 'hundred million units’ milestone behind us, we are now aiming for the billionth IC unit shipped. It may still sound small compared to the current RAIN RFID run rates, but the growth is significantly faster than that of any other RFID technology before it.
Europe would experience a surge in UHF integrations as a result of frequency harmonization, according to the industry. How do you see the future of the RFID industry?
The impact of harmonization will only be moderate in the short term because existing installations will require continued support of the lower ETSI frequency band. However, while we do not see the current situation preventing European companies from rolling out RFID extensively, harmonization will allow tag manufacturers to develop smaller, more cost-effective form factors with equal or better performance.
This translates into lower tag costs and an increase in the size and number of RFID integrations, which in return translates into more stringent chip performance. Business processes are already increasingly dependent on RFID, with the outcome being that large companies and corporations expect us semiconductor manufacturers to make long-term investments in research, development and manufacturing.
The RFID semiconductor industry is facing a major sustainability challenge and, at EM Microelectronic, thanks to the strategic backing of the Swatch Group, we are ideally positioned to address it.
Making products more powerful and continuously improving performance: What does this mean for the application sector? What applications do you expect beyond track-and-trace, localization, monitoring or maintenance?
It is not about completely new application scenarios, but about bringing track and trace from the retail sector to other verticals. As already stated, the conditions in these sectors obviously create new challenges and the dependence of these companies on RFID requires adequate partners with the ability to plan long-term, to cooperate and to guarantee sustainable stability.
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