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Printed Electronics World
Posted on November 4, 2004 by  & 

Products of the future

Enabled by printed electronics

When we look inside a talking gift card the electronics is recognisable from World War two sixty years ago - a loudspeaker with cone and electromagnet, capacitors, resistors, batteries, wire connections, solder. There is even an old fashioned wired microphone in the versions that record your voice. These components have become a bit smaller, that's all. True, the vacuum tube is replaced with a silicon chip but progress is so modest that there is no prospect of having such circuits in more than a tiny percentage of cards. They are too thick and, above all, too expensive.
This is even more true of packaging, labels, posters and other formats. The circuits are usually too bulky, too fragile and, above all, too costly. It is a rule of thumb in packaging that, if you offer a valued feature at one dollar you will be lucky to sell one million a year. At a few cents - for instance holograms or antitheft tags - many billions get sold yearly. By contrast, companies such as Mangia Media of the US that has just started selling talking Pizza box advertising will be restricted by the cost of the electronics. That is why gift pack tags from Talking Tags of the UK have not been more of a success. They record your voice but use the same electronics as a talking gift card including expensive lithium batteries.
The good news is that (a) there are now many more good reasons why electronic features will be valued and (b) there is a whole toolkit of new electronic components just arriving that are radically cheaper, thinner and more robust. Driving forces for electronic and electric smart packaging include the increasing percentage of old people in the population, more demanding consumers, new laws on traceability, recycling and so on and the zeal of the consumer goods industry in getting costs down and sales up. The new components include printed batteries from over ten companies, such as Power Paper Israel, Ridge Microenergy US, Infinite Power Solutions US, Cymbet US, Stone Battery Taiwan, Voltaflex US, Angeon US, Toshiba Japan, NTK Technical Ceramics Japan, Kist South Korea and Intellikraft UK. Some of these companies only wish to license technology but some will do small runs as well. Others manufacture in volume. The performance of these batteries varies widely between poor/ cheap and the opposite to reflect the wide variety of market needs that are emerging.
As an alternative, Konarka and others are trialling printed photovoltaics on low cost flexible packaging film. Intellectual property and manufacturing capability for printed conductors is even more widespread, including contributions from ASK France, QinetiQ UK, Rafsec Finland, Precisia US and many others. The first electronically changeable printed moving colour displays low enough in cost to be disposable first appeared on 15,000 Valentines cards sold by Marks & Spencer in 2003 thanks to Dow Printed Display Solutions. In volume the cost per centimetre of active area is around five cents but three cents will be possible.
Conferences and reports on printed electronics usually obsess about just two types, neither of which are available yet on low cost packaging material. They are Thin Film Transistor Circuits TFTCs and Organic Light Emitting Diodes OLEDs which, despite their name are glowing moving colour displays. Both will be extremely important one day but to talk of disposable printed electronics on and in packaging as a dream, misses the point. Just look at the magnificent large billboard displays of elumin8 of the UK and Schreiner Germany that glow in bright colours, with slabs of light switched on and off in sequence. These are almost entirely screen printed - the layer of conductor, ceramic insulator, copper doped phosphor, protector and so on. It is AC electroluminescence driven by a small box of conventional electronics but we shall print that too one day. Since cheap polyester film is the substrate, these technologies are now the basis of pressure sensitive table surfaces that light up selectively and even electronic wallpaper.
Today we have printed games on McDonald's packages thanks to T-Ink who use conductive patterns and batteries. RFID smart labels in packages already have printed antennas and interconnects. Battery testers on packages are entirely printed (resistors, thermochromic displays, interconnects) and sell in billions a year thanks to Avery Dennison and Mactac. Smart skin patches from Power Paper have been launched that replace the delivery package for cosmetics and drugs. The impregnated patch is shipped direct from the manufacturer and applied by the patient, delivering the substance by making the skin porous using a printed battery and conductor pattern. A variant gives young people a tattoo that lasts four months - just enough to terrify mother.
Printed electronic time temperature recording labels are available for trial with printed electrochromic displays from KSW Microtec of Germany and Infratab of the US. They go on food and blood bags and show the words EXPIRED when appropriate and signal back the temperature history. A chip is used at present, so they are not yet fully printed - the battery and antenna are printed - but they also combine an RFID function.
The Swedish Post Office with Cypak has a cellphone multipack with printed graphite patterns and interconnects inside that monitor when attempts at theft occur but use a microprocessor so cost is around $6 at present. Bioett of Sweden has successfully trialled a completely printed inductor/ capacitor/ biosensor for signalling back time temperature characteristics. Findus and a Swedish dairy chain have successfully tested it and we believe that a price of 15 cents is achievable at really high volume. No silicon chop is needed. The list of today's uses of printed electronics and electrics in packaging, packaging tearoffs and packaging inserts goes on and on.
To grasp what will come next we only have to look around us and read what the laboratories are up to. Aardex of the US already sells plastic bottles of pills that have a load cell in them so the can literally tell you if you just took one when you should have taken two. DDMS of the US, Information Mediary of Canada, Cypak of Sweden, Bang & Olufsen Medicom of Denmark and others have smart blisterpacks, plastic bottles and so on that record when you popped each pill and radio the information to the physician. MeadWestvaco is commercialising the Cypak invention but its price at around $15 use may limit it to drug trials. Currently, drug trials are surviving on 50% corrupt data because that is the percentage of patients that take their medication incorrectly. Packs from e-pill and others give spoken prompts. One being designed by Design Force in Sweden in collaboration with a large drug company ever shouts "not yet" if you touch your pill pack at the wrong time of day. The disoriented elderly really do need this level of assistance, although it sounds amusing to others.
As for the printing technology, most printed electronics and electrics today employs screen printing. However, ink jet is favoured for polymer TFTCs and other new technologies though there is some spin coating as an interim measure. A dream is the use of conventional flexographic, lithographic and other existing printing technologies. After all, the barcode is usually free of charge because it is applied as part of normal printing. The dream is that the same will eventually be true of RFID tags and many other forms of electronics on packages, products and so on. But do not hold your breath: that may take to 2020.
So how can the price of these electronic packages, posters and other products come down while we wait for TFTCs and OLEDs? Well, NXT of the UK has developed and owns proprietary technology that allows loudspeakers to be developed from flat panels. This Distributed Mode Loudspeaker (DML) technology offers enormous benefits in terms of sound quality, design flexibility and cost savings, benefits now evident in more and more of our licensees' products.
A further development of the bending wave technology that underpins DML technology is touch sensitivity, which offers significant advantages over current touch technologies.
Two years ago you would see the NXT loudspeaker as a large hifi product but, in 2004, it appeared over the screen of NEC cellphones to give excellent sound without obscuring anything or taking up any precious space. Obviously they will appear on packaging in due course. Incidentally, the TFTCs receiving most attention - those using polymers throughout - are also transparent. Perhaps we shall not see the modern replacement of the World War two electronics in packages and gift cards. What replaces it may be very thin and entirely transparent - we may not see it at all.
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