One sure sign that printed electronics and RFID opportunities are growing is that more colleges and universities are supporting the high-tech fields. Cal Poly, for example, plans to add a new master's program in printed electronics in 2013, which would mark the renowned institution's first...
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One sure sign that printed electronics and RFID opportunities are growing is that more colleges and universities are supporting the high-tech fields. Cal Poly, for example, plans to add a new master's program in printed electronics in 2013, which would mark the renowned institution's first graduate degree in printing.
In the meantime, the College of Engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) is constructing a state-of-the art, advanced printed electronics research facility. To be called the Structural and Printed Emerging Technologies Center (SPEC), the $9 million project is receiving one-third of its initial funding from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics and another third from the State of Texas. In South Carolina, Clemson University's Sonoco Institute added a Printed Electronics 101 seminar in mid-2011. And while RIT doesn't yet offer a printed electronics degree, there is some substantial multi-disciplinary research being conducted on the Rochester, NY, campus—extending from the chemistry to the print media departments.
Another harbinger is the bottom line: IDTechEx, a firm that specializes in printed electronics, RFID, and "smart" packaging, estimates that the worldwide market for printed and potentially printed electronics was $2.2 billion in 2011. Sales of thin-film photovoltaics (or solar cells), organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), and e-paper displays are growing rapidly, followed by thin-film transistor circuits, sensors, and batteries. Within 10 years, IDTechEx predicts the market will grow 20 times larger and be worth more than $44 billion, with 56 percent of products printed and 43 percent on flexible substrates.
IDTechEx organizes a conference and tradeshow annually called Printed Electronics USA & Photovoltaics USA. One new product introduced at the Santa Clara, CA show last month was Rexalpha conductive inks from Toyo. These silver inks offer ultra-low resistance properties and low curing temperatures of 100º to 130°C for faster curing times and superior printability. Compatible with rotary screen, flat screen, flexo, and gravure, the inks can be used to fabricate flexible printed circuits (FPCs), RFID-label antennae, and EMI shields.
A few years back, the only thing I knew about printed electronics was that the conductive inks used in the process reportedly are exorbitantly expensive: as much as $5,000 per gallon, I had heard. For confirmation, MyPrintResource turned to Malcolm Keif, a professor in Cal Poly's Graphic Communication Department, who oversees instruction in flexographic plating and press operations.
"It is true, for two reasons," explained Keif, who teaches undergraduate courses in Printed Electronics, Quality Management, Cost Estimating, Packaging Workflow, and Lean Manufacturing. "One, some use expensive materials like silver or gold. The other reason is that the proprietary organic materials are developed by PhD's in R&D labs and, therefore, are looking to leverage the return from an emerging market. When there is enough scale, many of these materials can be produced much less expensively.
"The big problem," he added, "is that we have a long way to go in terms of making good printable conducts that don't use a precious metal. There are some interesting things being done with carbon now, both in nanotube form and also graphene."
While the cost of conductive ink may seem like a lot, "don't forget, inkjet cartridges cost [even] more," Keif pointed out, citing a BBC News report about some cartridges costing seven times more per milliliter than vintage Dom Perignon champagne. In fact, for a printed-electronics price tag, the equivalent of $5,000 per gallon is less than half of what many OEM manufacturers charge for inkjet ink for desktop home-office printers.