Inventors of NFC: Franz Amtmann and Philippe Maugars

Interview with the inventors of near-field communications

Inventors of NFC: Franz Amtmann and Philippe Maugars
Inventors of NFC: Franz Amtmann and Philippe Maugars

They’re not the most famous scientists in the world, but they’re well known enough within the tech community, certainly after winning European Inventor Award recently. And the communication system they invented is used by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Franz Amtmann and Philippe Maugars, who both work for NXP, invented near-field communications (NFC) technology, which is enabling an ever-increasing number of people to pay for their shopping and whatever through contactless payment systems – using either their bank card or smartphone.

NFC can thought of as being like Bluetooth, but is said to be a lot simpler. Closely related to radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, NFC has a range of about 20 centimetres, whereas Bluetooth has a range of about five to 10 metres.

NFC relies on electromagnetic conduction – basically like magnets, which, as we all know, respond to each other when put close together. And the amount of data that can be transferred to and from an NFC module in a smartphone, for example, is very limited and highly regulated.

By 2012, NFC technology had generated revenues of more than $1 billion, and forecasts for growth range from $22 billion to $3 trillion globally by 2020.

However, in an interview with Robotics and Automation News, the inventors said that in the beginning, the enthusiasm for the technology was somewhat limited, which made setting up the infrastructure a slow process.

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Mobile phone makers and network operators were reluctant at first to invest in infrastructure

“The clear advantages of NFC could not be immediately seen by the mobile handset manufacturers and network operators,” says Amtmann. “Nobody wanted to pay for this technology because nobody knew what could be done and what its advantages were, so it was difficult to raise money.”

Now that NFC has proved to be the gateway through which billions of dollars are changing hands, the inventors who had faith in their technology are yet to become billionaires.

However, they are certainly celebrated by the tech establishment, as was proved by their winning of the European Inventor Award. “Honestly we will never forget this day we won the award,” says Maugars. “When you specialise in research and development, it’s something very rare, a unique adventure that can happen in your career. Honestly I will never forget this day.”

As well as making the average shopper’s life easier – we don’t have to remember so many numbers any more – Amtmann and Maugar’s NFC technology could also play a crucial role in robotics and automation going forward.

For example, robots similar to the ones used in Amazon’s warehouses could be fitted with NFC chips which could communicate with RFID chips on product packaging to locate them and know how to handle them. The same type of NFC technology could find its way into the consumer robotics and automation market.

The applications of NFC are many and varied, and even though hundreds of millions of people have the technology on their bank cards and smartphones, this is actually just the beginning.

“Almost every smartphone has an NFC chip in it,” says Amtmann. “And also at the point of sales, the installations are rapidly increasing. We have an extremely big market share at the point of sales, of approximately 80 per cent. In phones we have approximately 90 per cent market share.

“Additionally, at this point in time, there are very simple applications coming online, like ‘look and buy’, an extension using NFC.”

NFC also has a role to play within industries such as manufacturing. For example, cloud connected robots can communicate with each other as well as the products they are handling when in close proximity.

Amtmann acknowledges the implications for employment that increasing automation of this type, in that he believes there will be job losses. “I think concerning jobs, the same will happen in other areas. For sure, some jobs will vanish. But on the other side, jobs will be generated.

“In our industry, we are hiring a lot of people in a lot of locations and production is increasing. So in total, I would say the overall effect on jobs will be neutral.”

Maugars says questions around the effects of robotics of automation technology are currently “philosophical”, as it’s too early to know what will happen. But he acknowledges “some jobs will disappear more and more”, which would require people to learn new skills.

“I’m quite optimistic about the human race so I believe we will solve any problems,” he says. “And there are areas which will be interesting for NFC. For example, home automation. That is a growing area and will create new jobs. NFC is very good for that, and for Industrie 4.0.”