Printed Electronics: The Next New Thing?

Among all the wireless computer, telephonic, and recording gadgetry exhibited at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Jan. 8-11 in Las Vegas, was a new type of packaging for electronics and other products. This is a second-generation Natralock package from MWV (MeadWestvaco), which the company says, "features an added layer of security with conductive ink technology that emits an audible sound or 'alarm' when the package is tampered with or if the ink circuit is broken. This alarm indicates a security breach and deters would-be thieves from stealing the product inside. The built-in security allows maximum space for branding on the package, and the paperboard offers a higher quality look while maintaining the theft resistance critical to loss prevention."

Natralock packaging isn't new and has been offered as an alternative to more typical clamshell and blister-packs that deter theft by virtue of being nearly impossible to open without a chain saw—even after a consumer has legally purchased the product. In general, MWV says the Natralock package uses 60 percent less plastic than most other clamshells and presents a printable paperboard surface that's more marketing-friendly and attractive on the shelf.

The new Natralock package keeps all of these advantages and adds the audible alarm. Though it's showing the new package at CES, MWV hasn't fixed a firm availability date for the product, but it looks like it will be one of several types of innovative packaging incorporating electronic circuitry that will be introduced by the end of 2009.

MWV wasn't immediately available for comment on what makes the new Natralock package tick (they were all at the CES show), but researching various related technologies turned up an interesting innovator in printable electronics, a company called T-Ink, based in New York City (www.T-Ink.com). T-Ink isn't giving away any of its trade secrets, claiming only that it is "a breakthrough technology that uses conductive inks to replace wires, heat sources, speakers, lights, power sources, switches, buttons, and sensors."

Its products are protected by more than a dozen worldwide patents, and T-Inks can be used in just about any printing process, including offset, screen, gravure, and flexo. T-Ink has worked with leading consumer and manufacturing companies, including MacDonald's, Sears, and even MWV, on products that range from interactive tray liners for fast food, self-heating clothing, and with MWV on an item called "A Smoking Package." The Smoking Package was developed with British-American Tobacco and features what T-Ink calls "an animated light show" that appears across the face of a carton package.

In addition, and again with MWV, T-Ink created a pharmaceutical package that utilizes light and sound to remind consumers when and apparently how much medication to take. With packaging company AGI, T-Ink designed smart packaging that lights up and emits sound when a package is picked up from a store shelf. The AGI package seems to have a wide range of applications for many different types of consumer products.

Heated clothing for Sears uses T-Ink technologies to generate heat from 85 to 110 degrees for people who work outdoors in cold climates. And it's entirely washable.

Yet another new offering comes from a Silicon Valley-based company called Kovio Inc. For several years, Kovio has been developing silicon ink. At the EPC Connection Show in Chicago last October, and again at San Francisco's Printed Electronics Show in November, the company exhibited its newly-developed capability of inkjet printing transistors on very thin foil substrates. For the time being, Kovio is focusing on using this technology to produce RFID tags at about half the cost of the traditional tags. With its truly breakthrough technology, Kovio has attracted almost $20 million in venture capital—even in this economy—and is building a production plant for the new tags.

Another packaging innovation that employs electronics in interactive packaging is Snap2C technology from Graphic Packaging, based in Marietta, Ga. Snap2C provides bar codes that can be scanned by mobile phones, linking consumers to a manufacturer's Web site for additional information or even to ensure product authenticity. Graphic Packaging unveiled a Snap2C program in September 2008 for client Springer Mountain Farms, which offers poultry products.

"By scanning Mobile Tags printed on specially marked Springer Mountain Farms packages, shoppers can link to the Springer Mountain Farms Web site to review recipes to be sure they have everything needed to cook the meal before leaving the store," said Charles Brignac, marketing manager of retail packaging solutions at Graphic Packaging in a written release.

Although these new types of packaging are based more on inks of one kind or another than upon substrates, what is remarkable is that they can be used on a wide range of substrates, including paper, paperboard, fabrics, synthetics of all kinds, foils, etc. In fact, many of them advertise their environmental friendliness and the fact that they reduce the need for substrate—less or recycled paper stocks, less plastic, and no need for any kind of conventional circuit board. In view of all of this, package printers may be wise to look into presses that can print on just about anything, in addition to paper.

Jeanette Clinkunbroomer, a freelance writer, can be reached at jclink@aol.

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