28 May 2018 Business

Printable electronics takes stride closer to practicality

The projected market for printed electronics is vast, but first cost and availability must change. This is what a new operation in the north of England plans to do.

The opening of a multi million pound hub to print low cost electronics will be a shot in the arm for the technology as demand for sensors grows to meet the requirements of the Internet of Things.

The Emerging Electronics Manufacturing Centre in Newton Aycliffe in County Durham can produce millions of different RFID and NFC tags to allow companies to include these in packaging, labels and smart wearables, the initial markets for the emerging opportunity.

The £2.6 million facility, funded by the European Regional Development Fund, is an offshoot of the Centre for Process Innovation in Sedgefield where pilot lines have been used to produce proof of concept volumes of sensors using conductive inks to films and other substrates. The new operation moves this technology to the next phase making its possible to produce millions of sensors at low cost.

The EEMC is equipped with the first Pragmatic FlexLogic lines as well as other approaches to printing components on thin films which can then be converted to apply to labels, packaging or wearable goods. It includes a reel to reel line producing RFID labels and conversion line that converts these into smart labels at 60m/minute.

This will cut the production cost of RFID tags by as much as 80%, says Pragmatic, compared to the silicon based equivalent.

“Flexible electronics is an exciting and fast growing market and by creating digital innovation hubs as part of this project, we can help companies of all sizes take advantage of these digital opportunities,” says CPI’s business development manager, Sandy Gunn.

As well as producing the sensors, the unit will help outside customers test the feasibility of different styles of device and how they can best be utilised in practical applications, “to make the leap from concept to commercialisation by providing the opportunity to carry out feasibility testing, develop, or scale up their innovative electronic products and manufacturing processes in a low risk environment”.

The Centre for Process Innovation is a member of the SmartEEs acceleration programme which is making a call for companies to investigate and test how they might use low cost printable electronics in more advanced products. This can include packaging that enables smart tracking in medicines and sectors susceptible to counterfeiting, adding RFID and NFC tags to enable consumer interaction with the packaging.

At the opening, Josephine Charnley, co-founder of Quantum Technology, a company behind a touch sensitive sensor created with the help of the CPI, said: “Our ‘environmentally-friendly’ printable inks, which can create smart pressure sensing surfaces and 3D Force Touch without costing the earth, have had an incredible launch with CPI's assistance. Its first class facilities have enabled us to develop our new products, which have just won two awards in Europe.”

While the new facility is the first to install the “fab in a box” FlexLogic device, others will follow says Pragmatic CEO Scott White. Investors in the technology include label stock producer Avery Dennison.

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A new operationt in the north east will produce printed electronics at a price and in sufficient quantities for brands to trial concepts that involve the Internet of Things and security applications using NFC and RFID chips.

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