How RFID and flexible electronics will improve our lives in 2021

Industry predictions are difficult at the best of times, but even though 2021 starts with continued uncertainty there are still reasons to be positive. Alastair Hanlon, PragmatIC’s Chief Commercial Officer, shares his thoughts on the impact of developments in the semiconductor sector and an increase in the use of low-cost RFID and flexible electronics in healthcare, retail and waste reduction.

Digital healthcare on the rise

In 2020 not only did we see the most amazing collaborative efforts in the healthcare sector to find COVID-19 vaccines, but there were also other exciting technology developments that look set to positively impact on our lives for years to come. Thanks to advances in flexible electronics, there are now new remote patient monitoring solutions being trialled. For example, flexible patches that measure cardiac activity and wound dressings that include sensors that provide alerts when the dressings need to be changed.

RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) and NFC (Near Field Communication) technology have been around for some time, but only now with new ultra-low-cost options can smart solutions become widely available. For example, NFC-enabled blister packs used to ensure patients are adhering to their medication regime and reassure remote families that their elderly relatives are safe and well. Of course, I am personally really keen to see the roll-out in 2021 of SamplePod, the sample test transport and tracking system using low-cost RFID with PragmatIC’s ConnectIC® range of integrated circuits that has been trialled by NHS pathology labs in the North East of England and shown to improve efficiencies and reduce costs.

Retail in crisis 

The retail industry has had an especially challenging 10 months. On the one hand, the essential food shops have been incredibly busy and endured some supply chain problems, with shortages of certain products. And on the other hand, the non-essential physical shops have suffered badly, with more than a few closing their doors forever after national lockdowns. There has been positive news for online companies, and this has highlighted the need for excellence in logistics. The widespread impact of the COVID-19 crisis has compelled retailers and brands to improve operational efficiencies and build stronger relationships with their consumers in order to survive. In many ways, it has accelerated a process that was already in motion before the pandemic, encouraging them to investigate how technology can help to improve distribution processes and to understand, communicate with and reward consumers in more effective ways. I predict novel RFID and flexible electronics technology will be a real game-changer for retail in 2021, with digital solutions that deliver better traceability throughout the supply chain and consumer engagement campaigns for everyday products

Waste reduction high on the agenda 

One of the long-standing hot topics that remains high on the global agenda is waste reduction. Since starting at PragmatIC 3 years ago I have been involved in several environmental programmes. As a result of the UK Government DEFRA funded smart waste tracking challenge a few years ago we joined forces with the waste tech data analysts Topolytics and have worked with the Tyre Recovery Association (TRA) to demonstrate how embedding low-cost RFID tags using PragmatIC’s technology can simplify the recycling or disposal of used tyres. We continue to work with Topolytics and 2021 looks set to be another interesting year for circular economy initiatives, such as digital recycling rewards schemes.

Food waste is another concern for the whole world. Key to achieving the 2nd UN Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger is to reduce the amount of useful food we throw away every day. PragmatIC has been collaborating with Arm and partners on a pioneering project for several years to create an ‘electronic nose’ sensor based on a custom machine learning engine, implemented on a flexible substrate. Although the initial PlasticArmPit research has been aimed at personal care, our focus is extending well beyond this. It is clear this innovative sensor technology could have applications in food waste reduction, and PragmatIC is eager to investigate this further with our partners in 2021.

 

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