Six companies from across Europe are combining forces to bring printed electronics to printed products at acceptable prices. The Ping project is being supported by the Horizon 2020 programme, an EU initiative to seek out and enable the industries of the future.
In this case it is a new style of printed circuit that can be applied as a thin film to bring intelligence and interactivity to other objects, enabling the Internet of Things to spread beyond high ticket static items.
The objective is to prove the feasibility of a low cost manufacturing system for electronics which combines wireless identification and power transfer which are activated through standard RFID and NFC reading devices. While RFID already exists, current technology is based on assembled components making the chips both bulky and relatively expensive. By printing them, the project aims to open the way to much wider adoption of the technology.
Two printing companies are involved, both from Belgium. Cartamundi produces playing cards, but also cards for board games and trading card games, Top Trumps style for example. Van Genechten Packaging is a carton printer with plants in seven countries and annual sales of €300 million. A spokesman explains: “Through this joint project we give a new dimension to packaging and this for the benefit of consumers and supply chain. The future purpose of packaging is – next to its transport, communication and branding means – to organise interactivity via digital and social media platforms. In addition, more and more domestic appliances will be able to communicate with packaging, for example when preparing a meal in a microwave oven.”
Smartrac is a Germany company specialising in RFID technology used in product connectivity and identification and therefore in tracking, contactless payment and communication. Imec is a company which leads research into nanoelectronics, used currently in healthcare, energy and ICT and will be responsible for design of the circuitry. TNO is a Dutch consultancy business specialising in designing "smart solutions to complex problems".
The final member of the consortium is Cambridge company Pragmatic which develops the means of printing the flexible thin film electronics to enable the circuitry and antennas to be applied to cards or cartons. It has a pilot printing line set up at the Centre for Process Innovation in Sedgefield. “The objective is to embed this into pretty much everything that Cartamundi does,” says Pragmatic CEO Scott White. “For casinos it will address traceability which is a key issue, while for cards in board games, it will bring interactivity between the cards and the game, changing the messages perhaps, and for trading cards this interactivity can bring another dimension to the cards.”
RFID tags have been used in packaging some high value items, razor blades for example, for security purposes, and have been used in stock management, but the cost has been too high for widespread use. The project intends to bring the cost to a point where the technology can become widespread in traceability, for promotional interactivity and delivering consumer information. Self-setting microwaves become feasible.
“The problem has been that these chips have been based on silicon which has limitations,” says White. “In terms of form factor and they are too expensive for most applications.
“The benefits our technology approach brings include dramatically lower cost to allow the technology to be embedded in everyday objects and NFC to trigger a smartphone app is just a first example.”
The technology and techniques used to print on to specially prepared films is the company’s secret sauce involving very fine patterning on the films. “The processes are more advanced and accurate than a rotary print line can achieve,” he adds. “The simplest outcome is the NFC chip to interact with a mobile phone, but applications might add a printed display element, touch or temperature sensors.”