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Specialized Print Apps

How can print service providers (PSPs) take advantage of the growing market for radio-frequency identification (RFID) and printed electronics? Prior to 2012, the cumulative number of RFID tags sold over the past 65 years was 15.1 billion. Some 20 percent of those were sold in 2011, according to market research firm IDTechEx. Another nearly 4 billion tags were sold last year. Talk about growth and potential!

As I reported in the Graph Expo Official Show Daily publication last October, 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. This former experimental field has become a highly industrialized segment with huge market potential. No longer fiction, the technology has become scientific fact.

In 2012 the worldwide RFID market was valued at $7.67 billion, up from $6.51 billion in 2011, IDTechEx reported. This figure includes tags, readers, and software/services for RFID cards, labels, and key fobs, which are a type of security token (small hardware devices with built-in authentication mechanisms). And it includes both passive and active RFID. IDTechEx predicts that the RFID market will grow steadily over the next decade, rising fourfold to more than $26 billion in 2022. There has been strong growth in passive UHF tag demand with Impinj, Avery Dennison, and others emerging as leaders. Others, such as Smartrac, have been acquiring companies to create RFID businesses.

Yet when most of today’s commercial print firm owners and managers hear about the RFID and printed electronics opportunity, they think of highly specialized applications -- and rightly so. Included on my resource list for this story was Zebra Technologies, a global leader in barcode printing and real-time locating systems (RTLS) technology including printers, RFID, software, and supplies. But when I contacted public-relations agency Ogilvy/Chicago to set up an interview, I was told that commercial print firms are not a vertical market that Zebra takes seriously so far as asset-tracking is concerned. “I don't think we would be able to really contribute to your piece,” assistant account executive Katie Sarott responded in an email earlier this month. “We do not work with printing firms.

“Zebra supplies printers to businesses who use them for many different industry needs,” Sarott went on to explain. “Zebra also offers RFID solutions to businesses who require visibility into their inventory/assets to increase efficiency and business processes. Our clients are typically not print service providers; rather healthcare, government, manufacturing, etc. businesses.”

In retail, RFID is seeing rapid growth for apparel tagging. This application alone demanded 1 billion RFID labels in 2012, with another 1.35 billion tags forecast for this year, said IDTechEx. But executives at Avery Dennison also declined to be interviewed for this story, citing similar supply-chain reasons. Given the article’s focus, “I don't think we can add anything to the mix,” wrote Scott Jones, marketing communications manager for the firm’s Retail Branding and Information Solutions.

Meanwhile, RFID in the form of tickets used for transit demanded 500 million tags in 2012. Worldwide government demand is a big reason why RFID orders are up as much as 10 percent, IDTechEx said. Many local municipalities are committing to non-stop road tolling and library tagging, while national governments increasingly are buying national ID cards, passports and other forms of RFID.

Where does print fit in?

There are print professionals out there seeking to expand their service offerings into this exciting new profit center. But to do so effectively, they first need to learn more about what PE is and how they can participate in it. At the Experiential Lab in Graph Expo’s Future Print Pavilion, 2012 visitors discovered the many, and growing, applications ranging from RFID to displays and lighting to sensors and batteries. Demonstrations and presentations at last year’s show came courtesy of Flex-Tech Alliance.

“Print service providers can look to integrate simple printed electronics components into functional finished devices,” encouraged IDTechEx CEO Raghu Das. “This is an area of undersupply in the industry—there is a lot of material and component innovation, but few [are] creating complete products.” One company heeding Das’s advice is Novalia, a Cambridge, UK, printing firm where electrical circuits made by printed ink are helping to create a new generation of “intelligent” greeting cards, books, and other interactive paper-based products.

Novalia 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.

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 PhD 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.

There are two routes to the manufacture of printed electronics: 1) Conventional printers use existing manufacturing facilities to create printed electronics for their existing products, and 2) Electronics manufacturers use printing and packaging processes to create electronic devices for new applications. Novalia works closely with both types of manufacturers but prefers supplying printed electronics directly to print manufacturers because they already have a validated route to market and access to customers.

One example is its proprietary novacode technology. Working with a leading U.K. packaging company, Novalia is developing a way of adding a printed electronic circuit onto a printed pack. The circuit is deposited with no additional printing runs, and the only materials required are available inks. Similar in nature to a barcode, the concept makes use of a product that is already litho printed. The cost of adding the electronics is minimal, the firm said. Once this has passed through a manufacturing development phase, it could be produced on a million boxes per week in a single plant.

Novalia also has developed a new product concept for childrens’ trading card games. Trading cards generally consist of characters that compete against each other. A point scoring system determines which card wins each battle. There have been attempts to use technology to enhance card games, however, most involve using a bulky and expensive reader device The trademarked Novacard concept is simple: Print simple, inexpensive tracks onto the trading cards. The reader device consists of a single battery and four display indicators. The tracks are laid out so that a logic effect is created -- as in the ‘rock, paper, scissors’ game, which is the basis of many such trading card games.

Product innovation

Last December in Santa Clara, CA, more than 120 exhibitors attended IDTechEx’s ninth annual international Printed Electronics USA 2012 show. And at drupa last spring in Germany, a theme world within the show’s innovation park and a conference day in the drupa cube both covered PE. In addition, related products from some 30 exhibitors were presented, including the world premier of the 26-foot-long mircoFlex printing machine by 3D-Micromac. A range of tiny electronic functions can be printed on it, such as batteries, RFID labels, scrollable displays, and flexible solar cells. Higher throughput at a lower price means that once-expensive prototypes are becoming progressively cheaper, bringing commercial opportunities within the grasp of a growing number of providers.

Coatema presented a production plant for printed electronics with its Smartcoater machine. Its five individual modules include the systems necessary to produce all the coats for an electronically printed product, meaning that no pre- or post-processing is required. The Altana Group (umbrella brand for Elantas, Eckart, Byk and Actega) exhibited its developments in functional ink, as did Novacentrix, which also offered equipment for curing printed electronics products. Platingtech showed its printed textiles functions and a new printing plate for the screen printing of printed electronics.

The Organic Electronics Saxony (OES) organization also was represented at the quadrennial trade fair in Dusseldorf. Three founding members of the OES received the German Future Award in 2011 for their developments in printed displays, printed lighting, and printed photovoltaic. Ynvisible exhibited its latest developments in electrochromic displays. Finally, COLAE InnovationLab GmbH presened the work by its leading-edge cluster Forum Organic Electronics, whose members include 25 companies, universities, and research institutes from the metropolitan region of Rhine-Neckar.

“We showed a number of applications at drupa, which have resulted from collaboration with our international member companies: from interactive books, to intelligent packaging, to sensors and displays and flexible solar cells,” said Klaus Hecker, PhD and managing director of OE-A (Organic and Printed Electronics Association) within the German engineering federation VDMA, which was a cooperation partner for the theme world. Interested visitors received a comprehensive industry guide on printed electronics and a credit card sized energy self-sufficient torch, which includes a thin film battery, alongside a printed solar cell and circuit board.

Then in late August 2012, Komori entered the market by launching its PEPIO offset gravure press line designed for the manufacture of printed electronics (PE). With its long history in the design and development of web and sheetfed offset presses, as well as high-precision intaglio printing technologies for the securities and currency markets, the design of specialty flatbed and roll-to-roll gravure presses for the PE market was the next logical addition to the Komori press line, the manufacturer says.

The PEPIO F20 is a flatbed gravure offset press designed for the manufacture of touch panels. The target substrates are glass and film. The F20 is a high-precision printing press that integrates Komori’s latest technologies. The press produces, through gravure-offset printing, a very fine line width of L/S=30/30 m or less, which meets the narrow bezel requirement of projected capacitive touch panels. This achievement, which previously could not be produced through the printing process, will be a major contribution to the development of printed electronics, Komori said.

The PEPIO R20 model is a continuous roll-to-roll gravure offset press aimed at next-generation high productivity in printing fine lines. The target substrate is roll film. While the target market of this press is the same as the F20, it enables printing of fine lines with a line width of 50 m or less with high productivity. Because the R20 is a roll-to-roll type machine that prints on film, it uses the Komori Smart Alignment System and a center position control system to ensure high-precision position alignment.

“First and foremost, Komori is an expert in precision manufacturing, and the entry into the printed electronics marketplace reinforces Komori’s message at drupa 2012 that we are expanding into new markets,” said Kosh Miyao, president and COO of Komori America Corporation. “We are very excited about this new product offering, not only for the opportunities for business growth it provides, but as further evidence of Komori’s commitment to the advancement of printing technology.”

ePaper Adds Organic Flexibility

Most of us have seen flexible thin screens and e-paper in scifi flicks, but at Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center Inc.) subsidiary, such devices are the reality. A separate profit center for more than 10 years, PARC is a research and development company with a distinguished reputation for contributions to information technology and hardware systems. Founded in 1970 as a division of Xerox, its scientists and engineers have been responsible for such well known and important developments as laser printing, Ethernet, the modern personal computer, graphical user interface (GUI), object-oriented programming, ubiquitous computing, amorphous silicon (a-Si) applications, and advancing very-large-scale-integration (VLSI) for semiconductors.

The market for flexible, printed, and organic large-area electronics is growing rapidly. Presently estimated at over $1 billion, the global market is expected to explode to $45 billion by 2016, according to PARC and Xerox prognosticators. The majority of this market growth will come from new markets enabled or disrupted by the use of flexible substrates, from opportunities enabled by low-cost printing of full-feature electronics, and from electronic devices integrated into novel systems or form factors.

One technology enabler is organic printing, the cousin of printed electronics. Organic print 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. (Last spring, Agfa Specialty Products 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.)

The aforementioned flexible electronics are lightweight, rugged, bendable, rollable, portable, and potentially foldable. Much of PARC’s current work involves thin-film transistors (TFT) and p-i-n photodiodes for flat panel display and image sensor backplanes. (P-i-n diodes feature a wide, lightly doped “near” intrinsic semiconductor region between a p-type semiconductor and an n-type semiconductor region.) PARC technologists also have demonstrated low-temperature a-Si on plastic; laser-crystallized polySi (polycrystalline silicon) on metal foil and quartz; and innovative fabrication techniques ranging from laser recrystallization to jet-printed, mask-less digital lithography.

Last November, Samsung Fine Chemicals (SFC) chose PARC to validate use of its new materials for printed displays. (Korea-based Samsung also produces laser printer toner and liquid crystal polymer, among other products.) The client relationship will apply and implement SFC’s material technologies in innovative printed transistor prototypes for mobile phones, TVs, tablet computers, and laptop displays. PARC will build on its vast expertise in printed transistors to demonstrate Samsung’s breakthrough material offerings that will enable novel display products.

“PARC has a significant track record of not only technology innovation, but also in innovation that creates market and new business opportunities,” commented In Hee Sung, CEO of Samsung Fine Chemicals. “PARC’s experience in printed transistors along with their passionate team of researchers is a key success factor in this open innovation. We are very eager to see the fruits of this relationship and hope to make progress to capture this market in the future.”

PARC CEO Stephen Hoover added: “Samsung Fine Chemicals is a world-class company with global reach and superior products, and we are excited about our relationship with them to help them prototype devices based on their electronic materials. This work we are doing … is another step toward deploying printed electronics into various consumer electronics applications and products.”

PARC also is involved in printed electronics, developing jet-printing processes for organic semiconductors (including all-printed TFT arrays, pictured) and conductors – resulting in novel functionality and reduced manufacturing costs. These high-performance printed devices are achieved by materials understanding and device design that allows the formation of good dielectric-semiconductor and semiconductor-metal interfaces. [video example] The printed transistors have exceptional performance for polymers, and meet all requirements to address displays. Our a-Si, low-temperature polysilicon (LTPS), and organic semiconductor TFTs – which have the advantage of low-temperature deposition and low-elastic modulus – have also been applied to various radiation detectors, including x-ray, ultrasound, and neutron imaging.