Print holds out the promise of chips as cheap as chips

By Jenny Roper, Monday 13 October 2014

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Question: what do solar panels, banknotes, cars and Monopoly all have in common? Answer: they all feature, or are expected to soon start featuring, printed electronics.

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Around 10 years since R&D activity in this area began, the technology is now really coming of age, according to experts. Electrodes, conductors and thin-film batteries: all can and are being printed, with the print processes being used as varied, potentially, as those used within graphic arts. 

Which means, in the words of Steve Jones, business development director at Printed Electronics, the technology can now be found, to some extent, in pretty much “everything”.

“This is everything you can think of. Everything from missiles to toys – and everything in between. This is a very exciting area,” says Jones, whose company assists businesses with the R&D stages of developing printed electronics applications.

“There’s now an acceptance that it’s just a matter of time before print is involved in all corners of manufacture,” he adds.

The benefits of switching from traditional etching and additive manufacturing to printed electronics are generally recognised to be circuitry that weighs much less and, eventually, costs less to manufacture. 

“The cheapest chips are in the region of a few US cents each,” reported Raghu Das, chief executive of emerging technology consultancy IDTechEx, when presenting on this subject at Fespa’s Global Summit in Munich, back in May. “So eventually we will move from tens of billions of electronic devices, to trillions of electronic devices. We can really start to have disposable electronics for the first time.”

The most widespread use of printed electronics is currently in healthcare, reports Das, specifically in glucose test strips. Here printed electrodes take a measurement from the biological layer on top back to a reader to test blood’s glucose levels. “Something like 20bn of those are being sold each year,” he reports.

Much research is being done to expand this product into other similar applications such as pregnancy tests. And other developments in the healthcare and cosmetics sectors include packaging with circuitry that’s broken when a pill is taken, skin patches that supply a small tingle to remind someone to take a pill, and similar patches, developed by L’Oreal, applied to the face to improve the look and feel of skin.

“If you look at something like HIV and a six-month treatment period, if you take a single pill a day too late the whole treatment’s effectiveness can fall by half, so taking your pills on time is very important,” said Das back in May, of how critical it is to develop applications to monitor prescription-taking.

Another application already very much out there is solar panels. “Almost all solar silicon cells use printed conductors. So you make the silicon cell but you don’t want to damage the very expensive silicon by having an etching process on it,” says Das. “That’s a phenomenally big market.”

There’s also the potentially huge vehicle market, or more specifically printed circuitry for car dashboards. Then there’s the research underway at consumer electronics companies into moving the membrane of phone, tablet and TV displays towards being printed OLED displays. And it’s rumoured that the new polymer banknotes will feature printed electronic anti-counterfeiting measures.

“Almost every major consumer product company we talk to has someone dedicated to working on printed electronics, mainly at an innovation and research level. They’re all looking to create IP around new application ideas,” reports Das.

Which might sound a huge opportunity for printers. With printed electronics not only gradually starting to replace existing circuitry but creating new, never before possible or economically viable applications, surely there’s a chance for printers to get involved. 

But doing so may not be quite as straightforward as the term ‘printed electronics’ perhaps suggests. The first hurdle is that many of those looking to develop printed electronics applications are doing this in-house. This is particularly the case with healthcare products, where the approval process is particularly stringent. 

Toy story

And although games and toy manufacturers are actively looking into light-up boards and counters, most, including Hasbro, like to keep all game and packaging production in-house.

Hasbro, however, is apparently the exception to the rule here. Jones reports that, while most brands are indeed dedicating significant resources to printed electronics R&D, most aim to eventually outsource mass manufacturing of various components, as they’ve always done. 

“While Unilever and the like are multimillion-pound companies, they’re not interested in manufacturing the printed electronics – they want to buy the stuff in,” reports Jones.

Then there is the opportunity presented by introducing printed circuitry to products printers already deal with. 

Perhaps the biggest opportunity here is packaging, with more brands potentially following in the footsteps of Bacardi-owned gin brand Bombay Sapphire and Japanese cigarette brand Kent (the opportunity for cigarettes manufacturers to find a way around stricter branding guidelines with light-up graphics only visible at the push of a button, is a particularly interesting one).

“One day you’ll walk into a supermarket and everything will be screaming out at you – there’ll be moving and flashing displays,” predicted Das back in May.

The problem here, as with light-up magazine covers, is still that the cost is too high, so that light-up packaging seems confined for now to short, sharp marketing pushes and light-up magazines to sponsored pages or special issues. 

Das adds that Duracell battery packaging featuring printed battery testing electronics, has, despite being manufactured in volumes of 2.5bn per year at one point, now fallen out of favour in the US market at least, due to making packaging fractionally pricier to produce.

Of course the price of printing electronics on such products will hopefully soon start to come down. But the other, potentially larger obstacle may prove to be printers’ own technical know-how. 

“Printers don’t usually spend a lot of money on R&D and that’s a problem if they want to get involved in printed electronics,” says Das. 

“Some of the printers we deal with, their knowledge of print is just breathtaking. But they’re dealing with the human eye. When you’re dealing with electrons it’s different. The inks used are complex and there’s a new skill set to learn,” warns Jones. 

Which isn’t to say it can’t be done. Just take the example of Yorkshire’s Ryedale Group, which recently won the Stationers’ Company’s inaugural Innovation Excellence Awards, for developing a low-cost gas sensor with litho-printed electronics, designed to test for diabetes (and potentially other conditions, depending on the direction of future R&D).

Perfect partner

Ryedale is a great example, though, of how printers need to be careful to go about getting involved in just the right way. Ryedale has in fact partnered with Leeds University and, on the copper ink side of things, Hampshire-based Intrinsiq Materials. And it has been careful not to compete directly with the healthcare giants, and ensure that the product is economically viable to produce.

Steve Buffoni, director of operations, explains that, because the sensors are produced on the company’s existing Komori kit, the product has to be ripe for mass manufacture, so economies of scale stack up. This is why the company has refocused slightly in recent months, on disposable rather than reusable breathalysers.

“Even in developing countries a lot of people seem to have smartphones, so we’re looking now at disposable sensors with a mouthpiece attached that can be hooked up to an app to take the reading. The sensors would be less sophisticated so would only have one sort of biological layer, so would test for one condition at a time,” reports Buffoni.

On the economies of scale issue he adds: “People are asking if we can test other things that we’d never thought of. It’s quite difficult because you’ve got to be careful you don’t get sucked down blind alleys. Unless there’s the potential for mass manufacture it’s not really what we want.”

Das agrees that printers need to think carefully about the technology they’re using, and how this matches demand. “Things like flexo, gravure and offset printing have all been trialled and used to some extent. But the issue is that usually the volumes haven’t been high enough to justify widespread use of those processes,” he says.

“What we’re seeing is companies making smaller, slower kit for the first time,” he says, adding that Fujfilm and Ceradrop (part of MGI) are key inkjet vendors active here, while Screen and Asada Mesh are active on the screen printing side of things.

So to the question ‘can printers get involved in printed electronics?’ the answer seems to be: perhaps. Certainly this area of manufacturing is booming, with furious activity in all kinds of sectors reasonably justifying the description ‘printed electronics revolution’.

Whether printers get involved will  depend on who they are. The ability to carry out extensive R&D and a willingness to concentrate on a very specialised component or product will be critical. 

Printers need to realise that, while they might be experts in the print side of printed electronics, the latter half of the equation constitutes a whole new world. And one they will need to be very brave, and savvy, to enter.  

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