From Smart Phones to Smart Print

Advances in printed electronics are making traditional paper come alive. Circuits now can be printed on posters and other traditional displays, making them interactive to the touch—for example, by playing clips of songs when someone presses on a printed advertisement for an upcoming concert. OLED (organic electroluminescence display) technology is popping up in the form of illuminated displays, such as flexible, tough, eye-catching ads. OLED uses printed layers of carbon-based particles that convert electricity directly into light.


Got a web press?

What does all this have to do with the conventional printing plant? Scientists at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) 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.”

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 (Booth 5257) received an award from the FlexTech Alliance 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" wide and up to 660 fpm.

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,” encourages IDTechEx CEO Raghu Das.

One company heeding Das’s advice is Novalia, a Cambridge, U.K., 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.