CHICAGO—So-called smart cards are a fast-growing plastics market, and injection press suppliers Netstal-Machinery Inc. and JSW Plastics Machinery Inc. both displayed equipment at NPE to make the cards.
``The North American market [for computer chip cards] is embryonic, but Europe is farther along,'' said Russell Huffman, a market analyst in Phoenix with ESEC (USA) Inc., the U.S. unit of ESEC Holding SA. Huffman spoke in an interview at NPE 1997, held June 16-20 in Chicago.
The smart-card technology, which aims to replace magnetic-strip cards, is evolving with some systems using contact points and others having a contactless arrangement.
Smart-card production totaled about 846 million worldwide in 1996 and annual consumption is projected at 2.8 billion cards by the year 2000, according to Larry Hooper, Chicago-based editor for Faulkner & Gray Inc.'s Smart Card Alert.
Privately owned Gemplus SA of Gémenos Cedex, France, and Schlumberger Ltd.'s electronic transactions unit in Montrouge, France, are major producers of smart cards, card readers and software. Some seven firms compete in the niche globally.
Equipment at the Netstal booth demonstrated the processes. General contractor Sempac SA of Cham, Switzerland, integrated the system, incorporating materials-handling equipment from its parent, ESEC—European Semiconductor Equipment Center—also of Cham with mold-making equipment from Fico BV of Zevenaar, the Netherlands; and a 90-ton, four-cavity SynErgy 900 injection molding machine from Netstal-Maschinen AG of NÃ¤fels, Switzerland.
Several processes come together in the molding machine to embed a memory chip between two thin ABS labels, using an injection of ABS to make a 0.76-millimeter-thick card that meets criteria of the International Organization for Standardization. Typically, a printing firm makes plain or pre-printed in-mold labels.
A complete Sempac line includes an epoxy die bonder, a gold wire bonder, a multiplunger molder and, in this case, a Netstal injection molding machine. The Sempac system costs about $1.07 million, and Netstal's SynErgy 900, roughly $180,000.
Since late 1995, Sempac has integrated and installed seven of the systems, including a pair each in Europe and the United States and three in Asia, said Willi Truckenbrod, Sempac corporate vice president of marketing and sales.
In an interview at NPE, Truckenbrod said he expected a European prospect to sign a contract for the eighth system during the week of June 23.
For four years, Netstal has sold presses for the smart-card systems to Sempac. Worldwide, the press maker has sold another 30 presses to two other integrators and several European chip-card molders. Netstal would not identify the other customers.
At NPE, JSW, the U.S. sales arm of Tokyo-based Japan Steel Works Ltd. showed another production system.
JSW has spent two years developing ready-to-ship equipment, but ``Japan's market is not ready,'' said Keisuke Komyo, assistant manager in the international marketing group of JSW's molding machinery division.
At JSW's booth, an all-electric, servo-driven, two-cavity JSW J953LII injection press combined two PVC labels and an injected ABS middle to make a 0.76mm-thick chip card. JSW makes the $123,000 machine in Hiroshima, Japan.
The demonstration included Star Seiki Co. Ltd.'s TW-800HM-U robot and Matsui Manufacturing Co. Ltd.'s dryer and process air support equipment, according to Bob Lesher, sales representative at Equipment for Plastics Inc. in Elk Grove Village, Ill.
The complexity of Europe's telecommunications infrastructure has spurred the use of telephone cards. A user buys a prepaid card for a certain value and makes pay calls on the card's credits. The smart card also is used for some retail transactions and, in Germany, as a health card with an individual's complete medical history, Huffman said.
Potential U.S. sites to use smart cards include transit agencies, universities and military installations, according to Huffman.
Suppliers seek ``closed systems to get a critical mass of card holders,'' said Smart Card Alert editor Hooper.
``Once they get 30,000-40,000, they can get a larger closed audience,'' probably involving Internet and computer users, he said.
Smart cards may make portable computers obsolete in an era of the ``whole network computer concept,'' Hooper said. A smart-card user could display a complete version of his desktop resources on any computer, eventually on systems installed in hotels, airports and elsewhere.