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Posted on September 16, 2009

Printed electronics bringing new products to market for Belair

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In the years leading up to its commercial-use of printed electronics, Belair Microelectronics found many of the initial prophecies about printed electronics replacing the printed circuit board industry to be exaggerated. Instead, what it found was a technology capable of enabling an entire new line of products that was not before possible.
Belair Mircroelectronics began experimenting with printed electronics in the late 1990s, printing prototype RFID antennae using a simple, suspended-silver ink. Initial results were impressive but by that time, competitive manufacturing of the product in Europe was already in mass production.
Belair has a 30-year history in rigid and flex PCB fabrication, for advanced military applications, and wanted to integrate printed silver technology, as a means of lowering costs associated with hazardous material disposal.
"We looked at printed electronics as a way to possibly reinvent the printed circuit fabrication process," said Geoffrey Smith, director of business development for Belair. "We quickly found out that the technology wasn't quite there for that."
The findings didn't turn Belair off printed electronics, but it did surprise them. Today, a large component of Belair's core business is developing prototype microelectronic-assemblies and manufacturing products embedded with those assemblies. It was in this segment of its business that Belair found a number of opportunities for printed electronics. In some cases, printed electronics "unstumped" ideas that were languishing.
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The current view of printed electronics is an exciting new technology that is sophisticated and complex. However, to John Gregory, Belair's Chief Technical Officer, the reality is that printed electronics will make electronic circuits and interconnects simpler and more accessible. He readily admits that many of the new products Belair are developing are not that sophisticated. They have no qualms in calling these applications low-tech.
"To some degree, for us it is all about accessibility - bringing electronics to applications that previously no-one would ever think of," said Gregory. "The average person might look at our products and think 'how in the world did they do that?' But an electronics designer with any degree of aptitude would hardly be impressed with the layouts."
One product that has impressed, however, is a product developed by Sewell, NJ-based Milone Technologies, ( External Link). Its founder and CEO Chris Milone wanted to find a way to measure more easily the depth of a liquid in a container. He knew there had to be a way to measure electronically the depth in a cost-effective and mobile manner. It wasn't until he came across printed electronics and teamed up with Belair that he was able to develop what today is called the Milone Technologies eTape™ fluid level sensor.
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The eTape™ is a solid-state, multi-point fluid level sensor that is approximately 25mm wide, 0.381mm thick and can be manufactured in customized lengths to fit any application. It is like an electronic tape-measure that, once submerged in a fluid or powder, emits a signal that is picked up by an electronic device or computer. That computer or device then interprets the signal and knows how deep the fluid or powder is in the container. From there, software on the computer can use that data in a million different ways.
Milone Technologies has been granted two U.S. patents and have others pending for its fluid level sensor technology. The company is currently working on applications for consumer products, the medical industry where low cost, single-use products are required, and in industrial applications where non-fouling, reliable fluid level measurement is required. "I came across the idea while measuring the depth of groundwater in monitoring wells to determine the direction of groundwater flow in support of contaminant fate and transport investigations," said Milone.
The traditional measurement technique involves a bulky and relatively complicated process where a graduated tape wound on a reel is lowered into the well. The numbers are read off the reel and recorded by hand and are later transcribed into a computer for extrapolation. Now, by using eTape™, the tape is lowered into the water and the information is immediately loaded onto a laptop computer.
eTape™ was a marriage of two industries and it took someone with the right background to think of it. Milone has 12 years experience in environmental consulting, specializing in the management of hydro-geologic investigations and assessment and the remediation of hazardous waste sites. Couple that with his 5 years experience in the electronics industry and you have someone with the capability to conceive the eTape™.
"I tried a number of different methods using conventional electronics to build this device. But it was never cost effective," Milone said. "Then one day I read an article on printed electronics and that's when my eyes were opened and things started to fall into place."
Printed electronics offered Milone a very inexpensive way to make his sensor. Nevertheless, it also opened the door for Milone to create a product that would do more than just measure water tables. It will soon be used in laboratories measuring fluid levels, collecting data for study and one day even be used to notify gas station attendants when their tanks are running low.
The eTape™ incorporates a printed silver circuit and a small gold-plated solder tab connector (made using conventional printed circuit methods) encapsulated in a paper-thin PET envelop. The eTape's envelope is compressed by hydrostatic pressure of the fluid in which it is immersed resulting in a change in resistance, which corresponds to the distance from the top of the sensor to the fluid surface. The eTape™ sensor provides a resistive output that is inversely proportional to the level of the fluid. From this, computer software can determine the depth of a fluid or powder in a container.
The eTape is in its initial marketing phase. A one-foot version of the sensor is being advertised to the educational and hobby electronics market where Milone has received strong feedback. His first batch of product will be available through various online resellers in October 2009.
Industry pundits have also taken note. Milone has agreed to present his eTape at the IDTechEx Printed Electronics/Photovoltaics 2009 show External Link in San Jose on Dec. 2nd and 3rd.
"Chris's eTape is one of those things," says Gregory. "The actual technology of the product really isn't very compelling. But the printing geometries, tooling and production processing is the technical combination that makes it significant." In this manner, Gregory and Milone envision more and more products that will be born out of printed electronics.
"Printed electronics has proved its usefulness and I believe is a tool that will evolve in a number of directions - some which will be defined as ecological considerations become government mandates," says Gregory. "When comparing printed electronics to conventional etched copper interconnect systems, it's easy to see where limitations exist. Our mission is to create alternative assembly systems that are ecologically compatible, globally competitive, and not encumbered by obsolete technologies which are no longer viable."