Print Tech Is Science Fact, Not Fiction

Within the printing industry, “PE” was known in proofreader circles as the acronym for a “printer’s error”. In this second decade of the 21st century, however, PE has developed new meaning, as in printed electronics. It is the next big thing, say industry watchers, with the global market expected to reach $24 billion by 2015. PE is growing at such a thundering pace, in part, because of its numerous benefits over conventional electronics—lower costs and simplified fabrication, to name just two.

For print professionals seeking to expand their service offerings into this exciting new profit center, they first need to learn more about what PE is and how they can participate in it. At The Experiential Lab (Booth 3457) in the Future Print Pavilion, GRAPH EXPO visitors can discover the many, and growing, applications ranging from RFID to displays and lighting to sensors and batteries. Demonstrations and presentations at this year’s show, are courtesy of Flex-Tech Alliance.

Organic printing, PE’s cousin, features semiconductors such as photoluminescent polymers and small molecules, liquid crystals, triplet emitters, and other light-emitting polymers. Compared to inorganic, silicon-based materials, organic materials are flexible, relatively cost-effective, and easy to manufacture. They are used in high-performance devices like organic photovoltaic (OPV) and OLED displays as well as organic thin-film transistors (OTFT). Organic materials also are used as components of conductive inks, so devices can be efficiently fabricated using inkjet printing technology. This spring, Agfa Specialty Products (Booth 627) introduced a new portfolio of Orgacon products enabling cost-efficient manufacturing of solution processed OPVs on flexible substrates. These formulations are designed for roll-to-roll processing on polymer substrates by slot die coating, inkjet, or screen printing.


“Intelligent” Print

At Novalia, a Cambridge, UK, printing firm, electrical circuits made by printed ink are helping to create a new generation of “intelligent” greeting cards, books, and other interactive paper-based products. The company specializes in designing electronic circuits and controls that are printed onto paper and cardboard using conductive ink through conventional litho and flexo presses, which are attached to relatively inexpensive chips and output devices. Applications have ranged from a tissue box that has a piano built in (to amuse children on long journeys) to pill packaging that remembers when you took the last pill and stores that information to pass back to drug companies for efficacy testing.

Here’s how it works: A graphic designer first creates an ordinary image; let’s say a birthday cake with candles. Then an electronics engineer uses graphics software to superimpose a circuit on the image, following the lines of the original design. When this isn’t possible, the engineer makes small changes to the original image.

“It’s almost the opposite way you’d normally design a circuit,” explained Managing Director Kate Stone, who has a Ph.D. in physics. Touch-sensitive input and light/sound output is coupled with transistor-based intelligence. Novalia offers design, product development and creation services, and works with its partners to coordinate manufacture.


3D Print to Revitalize “Rust Belt”

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is another “hot” area that attendees can see in action at GRAPH EXPO this week. 3D printing makes products by taking digital data and using it to build up an item, layer by layer, from a material. Similar to a desktop printer that puts 2D digital files on a piece of paper, a 3D printer creates components by depositing thin layers of material, one after another, using a digital blueprint until the exact component required has been created. This process differs from the more traditional “subtractive” manufacturing that takes a material, such as a piece of metal and, through machining, shaves away the material until a final shape is reached.

The additive process is expected to have implications in a range of industries, including defense, aerospace, automotive, and metals manufacturing. The U.S. Department of Defense envisions customizing parts onsite for operational systems that would otherwise be expensive to make or ship. The Department of Energy, meanwhile, anticipates that additive processes would be able to save more than 50% energy use compared to today’s subtractive manufacturing processes.

A consortium of businesses, universities, and community colleges from the northeast Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania “Tech Belt” are co-investing with the federal government in an institute for manufacturing innovation in Youngstown, OH. This new partnership, called the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), was selected through a competitive process, led by the Department of Defense, to award an initial $30 million in federal funding, matched by $40 million from the winning consortium, which includes 40 manufacturing firms, nine research universities, five community colleges, and 11 non-profit organizations.

NAMII will serve as a pilot for what is hoped will be a total of 15 institutes focusing on different manufacturing technologies. In March, he announced a plan to invest $1 billion to create the institutes—but the proposal to create the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) will have to be voted on by Congress.


Multimedia expression

There is also the “expressive technology” initiative that California Polytechnic State University has undertaken under the direction of instructor Harvey Levenson, Ph.D., within its Graphic Communication Institute (GrCI). Envisioned as the all-encompassing study of any type of communication to anybody, anywhere, and anytime, expressive technology has implications for a myriad of industries, including packaging, gaming, and marketing promotion. Refocused due to economic constraints, the initiative’s two main thrusts now are on packaging-related developments and evangelizing a digital curriculum.

“With its strengths in science and math, combined with liberal arts applications of technology, Cal Poly is the ideal choice for such a partnership of academia and industry,” says Carl Joachim, newly named Senior Partner at Caslon, which manages the PODi Digital Print Initiative. Before resigning from his Marketing VP post at Ricoh in late 2011, Joachim and the Southern California PIA affiliate (PIASC) helped to develop a collegiate curriculum with coursework emphasizing digital document design, the use of typography, color management, cross-media marketing, and variable data imaging. “It is a flexible framework,” Joachim noted, “able to adapt and expand to changing technologies, such as the mobile trend.”

A year ago, Cal Poly started offering a minor in Media Arts and Technologies, taking a multidisciplinary approach to the study and practice of media studies offered through the humanities department. The 28-unit minor brings together new and existing courses in humanities, theater arts, English, computer science, art and design, graphic communications, and other programs, providing students with the opportunity to emphasize technical design and/or narrative construction. The degree program makes use of partner, satellite labs and technical facilities that are already present on campus, including the Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies Expressive Technologies Workshop.

The impact of expressive technology in the packaging sector poses a challenge to digital, offset, and flexo printers, Joachim added. Print firms need to decide how to participate in developments such as QR codes, snap tags, augmented reality, and GPS-enabled apps for merchants. “Interactive packaging is exploding,” said Joachim, “yet there is very little adoption of digital printing in the packaging space.”

Joachim pointed out that while higher speed, color inkjet devices are outputting their fair share of label work these days, the larger opportunity is finding applications within other facets of packaging, such as flexibles (bags, plastics, polypropylene), folding paperboard, and rigid paperboard (corrugated) used primarily for shipping.

Whether the OEM is HP, Kodak, Xeikon, or Xerox, he said, the question is this: Can wide web fed inkjet presses, speeding at more than 1,000 fpm, work together with converting and extrusion machines in this packaging context? Cal Poly thinks so, which is why the university has established a Department of Packaging within its Industrial Design School.