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Idex Biometrics announces breakthrough system-on-chip technology slashing smart card costs


Idex Biometrics is launching a biometric-system-on-chip (BSoC) which holds the potential promise to lower the manufacturing cost of biometric smart cards to a point that enables mass market adoption. The new TrustedBio family of products featuring BSoC technology performs not just image capturing but also integrates processing, power management, and additional electronics.

Idex Biometrics CTO Anthony Eaton described the integrated system as “basically an enhancement to our off-chip sensor technology” to Biometric Update in an exclusive telephone interview. The system packs all of the electronic components necessary for the biometric process into the SoC by leveraging an advanced silicon which would be cost-prohibitive for on-chip fingerprint sensor makers. The components must otherwise be connected in a module or a flexible circuit, making manufacturing with the card form factor difficult and expensive.

“With the TrustedBio family what we’re doing is what we refer to as ‘biometric integration,’” he explains. “We’re taking all of those electronic components that are currently buried in the plastic in between the sensor and secure element, and implementing them in our silicon for our biometric system-on-chip approach.”

Idex CEO Stan Swearingen explained the benefits of the off-chip approach, in which a polymer substraight is used to capture the fingerprint image, to Biometric Update in a feature on the biometric smart card market’s path to mass adoption.

Bringing costs down has proved challenging thus far, as the demands of the technology in terms of sensor area and the many electronic components necessary to make the system not only functional, but effective and secure. Eaton says that by integrating this somewhat complex system onto an enhanced sensor with a high level of integration, Idex can deliver even better performance and security, in addition to a major price difference.

“From our point of view that’s the key step forward, in allowing the manufacturing complexity of the card to be reduced, but also the manufacturing costs and the bill of materials cost,” he states.

The integration is possible because of the use of advanced silicon, which would be very expensive for competitors making sensors 60mm squared or more out of silicon.

“Because our silicon chip is decoupled from the substrate, it means we can use an advanced silicon technology and still be very, very, cost competitive,” Eaton claims.

Idex modeling estimates overall cost to produce can be reduced by 50 percent or more, at which point the cost would likely fall below threshold necessary for mass adoption.

With advanced silicon, “we can put more stuff in there, the integration levels can be much higher, the power efficiency can be much better,” according to Eaton.

The change in material also allows the system to run significantly faster, and helps with security. Matching speed is reduced well under the critical one-second threshold, Eaton says, which is expected of contactless technologies. Security is improved by bringing the processor into the same system as the sensor, as “you can basically bring the sensor into the chain of trust,” improving the integrity and privacy of biometric data. It also enables encryption and other security features.

“It’s a great way of future-proofing the system, because we see security basically as an arms race.” There’s a constant raising of the bar,” Eaton points out. “The security guidelines that we get from the payment schemes this year are going to be more difficult than the ones we got from the last year or the year before.”

What makes the announcement exciting to Eaton, therefore, is not just the reduced manufacturing cost enabled by TrustedBio technology, it is doing so while adding the resources to improve user experience and security at the same time, bringing biometric smartcard technology more closely into alignment with the expectations of mass-market payment systems.

“That’s such an enabler for this market, because this market is so resource-constrained, any opportunity you have to add, basically compute horsepower into the smartcards … has a massive impact on the system, and that’s what we’re able to do,” Eaton declares.

The first member of the TrustedBio product family is expected to begin sampling in the second quarter of 2020, and reach mass production by the end of the year. Other products will follow to fit with the different strategies of card manufacturers and integrators, some of whom will want to use their own algorithm, for instance, while others prefer a turnkey solution.

“There’s quite a spectrum in terms of customers, and with the TrustedBio family of products, we’ve got enough flexibility in the different products that will be in that family to be able to provide” solutions for full range, Eaton says, emphasizing that the importance of allowing for different differentiation strategies among customers.

In addition to payments, biometric smartcards could also be used for access control or identification. There are forecast to be 579 million biometric smart cards issued just for payments in 2023.

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