What if your clothes could charge your cell phone? Imagine wearing fabric made from photovoltaic textiles acting as solar panels that could charge a mobile phone. Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK have developed a new photoelectric device that is both flexible and transparent. At...
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What does all this techno-babble have to do with the conventional printing plant? Scientists at the renowned Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California contend that anyone with a large roll-to-roll, web-offset printing press can have a future in electronics manufacturing, printing electronic components such as sensors, transistors, light-emitters, smart tags, flexible batteries, memory, and smart labels. Already, PARC’s printed logic circuits drive printed memory manufactured by Thinfilm Electronics, which manufactures printed temperature sensors for perishable food packages.
Although PARC is a division of Xerox, “it is not developing the new technology for its parent,” as CNET/CBS Interactive reported in May. “Rather, it is working in conjunction with private companies and academic institutions to try to break new ground in the field of printable, functional electronics.” Janos Veres is PARC’s program manager for printed electronics, and at the core of his work is a blending of material science and printing technologies. That means developing a series of special inks that incorporate the desired functionality, be it sensing, light-emitting, or even chips. “You make inks and print with those inks,” Veres told CNET. “And you only put it where you need it.”
As mentioned above, one method for printing electronics employs traditional inkjet print heads. But rotogravure and flexographic methods also are employed. In fact, gravure printing of electronics is of significant interest due to its ability to print high-resolution features and thin layers having uniform morphology. In January, PARC and Clemson University’s Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics received an award from the FlexTech Alliance (see sidebar) to transfer and optimize functional printing technology from lab scale to a commercial printing press. The collaborative project spans laboratory and high-volume commercial scale printing processes 20 inches wide and up to 660 feet per minute. (The FlexTech Alliance R&D program is supported by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.)
Market research consultancy IDTechEx has projected that the paper electronics market—estimated at some $16 billion this year—will grow to nearly $77 billion by 2023. “Print service providers [PSPs] 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. (See “Specialized Print Apps”)
Near-field communication (NFC) is a related concept – an evolved form of the RFID solutions used for open-road tolling on highways. Since gaining mainstream traction two years ago, NFC technology now is bundled into more and more smartphones, including the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy S4. As a result, consumers are beginning to use NFC for more than mobile payments. What if you could tap your phone to unlock a door, sans keys? That reality may not be far away, thanks to NFC. In a real-world example, an Asian library has enabled a new use of the wireless technology, which is akin to a low-power Bluetooth that can transfer very small amounts of information, such as a URL or a payment. The key to NFC is that the item sending the information does not need any power: Badges and stickers can deliver information to a phone with a tap.
Hanno Library has installed approximately 100 tags, called “Tatchitagu” and provided by Fujitsu, on its shelves in Japan, where mobile phones with NFC are more common. There, the technology is employed to replace credit cards and subway passes. Library visitors can tap their phones on the tags to receive all kinds of information, including Wikipedia links to authors, pictures, and reviews. The tags also access services: If someone wants to review books or recommend them to other readers, he or she just taps and types. The system even facilitates check-out.