Online Exclusive

Printed Electronics/RFID 2012

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.

Expensive Ink?

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.

Ask the Teacher

Incidentally, Keif was selected as the Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation's 2004 Educator of the Year. So, I asked the educator to educate me and MPR readers some more about printed electronics, which he defined as conductive devices that are manufactured using solution processing (ink) and a flexible substrate (usually plastic, but could be paper). "The printing is additive, as opposed to subtractive [etching]," the professor said, "and may use screen printing, gravure, flexography, inkjet, offset lithography, or a host of other less common graphic printing and coating methods. In additional to printed electronics, there are also other non-conductive functional applications in this space, including barriers, dielectrics, sensors, etc."

I also asked professor Keif a few other questions relating to printed electronics:

MPR: I've heard of electrochromic and electroluminescence technologies. What are they, and how do they differ?

Keif: Electrochromic (EC) is a reflective technology where inks change color. They are similar to thermochromic inks (in appearance, not composition) except the color change is initiated when a small voltage is applied, whereas thermochromic inks change with temperature change. (Editor's note: See last September's "How'd They Print That?") Electrochromic inks can be stimulated with a relatively small battery.

Electroluminescent (EL) is an emissive technology (not reflective), so it is like a back-lit sign. ELs are much more power hungry and require an AC field for the phosphorescing to work. Therefore, it is suited for stationary items like point of purchase displays, whereas ECs can go where ever a small battery can go.

We have printed both ECs and ELs via screen printing, though it is likely possible they can be printed in other ways.

MPR: What are some common applications of the above?

Keif: ECs are used for small items like secure ID cards or credit cards. ELs are used for signage, POP, etc.

MPR: Would you consider printed electronics a specialty service, or is it something that the average commercial printer could delve into if they chose to invest in the resources?

Keif: The average commercial printer could develop expertise in this area, but it takes a large commitment, as it is difficult and requires a lot of research at the moment. Further, offset hasn't advanced well because of the two-fluid system. Since these inks are in their infancy, no one has a system (that I know of) that can work with fountain solution, and the other rheological properties of offset inks. Further, the ink film thickness of offset may be too thin for many applications. Most of the work has been with screen, gravure, flexo, and inkjet.

Specialized Indeed

This past December, UPM-Kymmene announced that it wants to sell its radio-frequency identification business to Dutch firm SMARTRAC, a global market leader in high-quality RFID inlays for electronic passports and contactless credit cards as well as for RFID transponders for public transport applications. Seeing value potential in the new combination, the Finnish paper-making parent company will become an indirect shareholder with a 10.6 percent economic interest. (The deal, which is subject to regulatory approvals, is expected to close during Q1 2012.)

"UPM has been developing and investing in its RFID inlay business for a number of years. The business unit has evolved from a small venture to a sizeable business and is now recognized as the market leader in its field," said Jussi Vanhanen, president of engineered materials for UPM. "Combining the business unit with a company with the industry's widest RFID business portfolio, we give it new leverage to continue to develop successfully."

"The transaction will ... furnish us with favorable additional manufacturing capacities in strategically important markets," added Christian Fischer, PhD, CEO of SMARTRAC.

Security Packaging Wins Award

Vorbeck Materials and MeadWestvaco (MWV) have received the Product Development Award in Printed Electronics from IDTechEx for MWV’s Natralock with Siren technology, an anti-theft packaging solution.

The security-smart packaging solution incorporates Vorbeck’s graphene-based conductive ink technology to enable an on-package alarm to protect the product from theft or tampering before purchase. “We are honored to be recognized for our work in developing real-world products using our revolutionary Vor-x graphene technology,” said CEO John Lettow. “We have been extremely privileged to work with MWV, a leader in leveraging new technology to develop innovative and impactful packaging solutions.”

The design of Natralock with Siren Technology offers significant advantages over existing security-packaging devices. Embedded technology within the package itself allows for exceptional security without interfering with product branding or deterring sales by requiring products to be placed behind a locked cabinet.

Natralock with Siren technology packaging uses an on-package alarm to provide three levels of security for retailers. The alarm sounds whenever a thief attempts to:

  1. Leave the store with a stolen product. The system also sets off store exit security alarms, notifying security and providing the ability to easily identify and trace the stolen product;
  2. Remove the product from its package (to conceal the stolen item);
  3. Tamper with the package, product, or security device.

MWV selected Vor-ink after extensive testing demonstrated Vor-ink’s high conductivity and exceptional flexibility. It was developed by MWV and Vorbeck Materials using the MWV Exchange, MWV’s Web-based open innovation portal. Siren technology is the world’s first consumer product to use graphene. Currently in the last stages of regionalized field tests, Natralock with Siren Technology is expected to appear in select retail stores in 2012.