As a market printed electronics will be worth billions of pounds. Precisely how many billions of pounds, nobody is sure. Predictions range from hundreds of billions to trillions by 2025. To some extent it was ever thus. Forecasters have been predicting big things for printed RFID or NFC tags for many years, let alone the more intelligent pages that are going to underpin the Internet of Things. But the floodgates have not opened. Because producing these chips, the sensors, the tags have been clunky, slow and expensive, just like producing books in the centuries before Gutenberg.
The race has been on to develop technologies that change this, to make electronics as easy and cost effective to produce as cartons, magazines, books, labels – all of which may end up with printed electronic tags in the future. Litho has been used using highly viscous conductive inks; gravure is being pioneered with Komori behind a press able to lay down the thin lines needed; inkjet is being tested, though has yet to achieve the breakthrough needed. This leaves flexo as currently the favoured option. Flexo plates can achieve the accuracy necessary, can carry the special inks and can print on film.
This has sparked Kodak’s interest and one of its divisions is the Advanced Material and 3D Printing. Using the Flexcel plate, it can print 3 micron thick lines printing a conductive silver ink, which is UV cured, to produce an almost invisible antenna to boost the power of a 5G signal or radio signal. This is still at the feasibility phase where Kodak is looking to find the right market application for what it can do. This is more likely to be something simple, something that can replace an existing technology or meet a demand that, thanks to the Internet of Things, is only now emerging.
The ability to print on a clear flexible material is key. The characteristics needed for the IoT tags needs them to be applicable to any surface and shape, to be robust and to be cheap. Plastic films achieve this and flexographic printing can deliver it. Printing however is just the start. Few useful products can be achieved with printing alone; other electronic components are likely to be necessary, so some kind of manufacturing line is needed to combine print with assembly. And there needs to be an application, meaning someone needs to create the tools needed to make sense of the data generated by the RFID or NFC chip.
One much discussed example is the check-out free supermarket. If every item in a trolley carries its own identifier, passing under a suitable bar will be enough to capture the price information about every item in the trolley and to link that to the customer’s NFC enabled phone linked to bank account details. No more unexpected item in the bagging area. And the price can be adjusted without printing new labels.
But despite years of promise, this is not yet a practical reality. Companies have pored over samples and prototypes at all kinds at exhibitions aimed at printers, drinks companies and the electronics industry. Customers can have samples, but not in the quantity and volumes needed to run meaningful consumer tests.
RFID has been available for a decade or more, but take up has been limited because of the cost. A tag that costs 20¢ makes sense for a luxury product, but not one that costs $10. The tags can play a role in security or anti counterfeiting, again for higher value products. And there are examples on the market where labels with printed circuits light up or respond to sound, but not in the volumes for the commoditised fast moving consumer goods market. Novalia has enjoyed success with campaigns where its electronics combine with software to create highly interactive posters that responds to touch. Numbers however are limited. The problem remains the cost of the components particularly the RFID and NFC chips.
That is now changing, led by developments at two UK organisations, the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) and PragmatIC. CPI is a technology innovation centre, funded as part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. Its role is to support companies of all sizes to take promising technologies in a number of fields and act as a link between the lab, prototype and mass production. It creates a proof of concept model, invites manufacturers to test their ideas and helps UK manufacture move into a high value, high technology space.
Five years ago CPI began work on plans for a plant that would focus on creating the real world samples of printable electronics in usable quantities. This year the £2.6 million Emerging Electronics Manufacturing Centre project, part funded through the European Regional Development Fund, opened its doors in Newton Aycliffe, in County Durham, as an expansion of the CPI operation at Sedgefield, five miles away.
Alan McClelland, head of strategy for Printable Electronics at CPI, says: “Our mission was to show that manufacturing could be done at scale and in the world of consumer goods, brands need up to 50,000 units just to test whether there is acceptance in the market.”
That is what CPI can now deliver. The focus is combining electronics with print, producing from relatively simple RFID and NFC tags for track and trace applications to more complex devices, which track the condition of goods as they are shipped across the world. Pharmaceuticals are a big area due to the problems caused by counterfeiting, the increasing need for temperature-controlled distribution and the high value of some treatments.
As well as this, McClelland sees opportunities where tags act as environmental condition monitors, checking that chilled goods stay within the temperature zone, that perishable goods remain fit to eat and that goods have not been damaged in transit. There is also the potential for consumers to use NFC to connect directly to products, to get recipe ideas or allergen information and smart packaging on medicines can connect to a patient’s phone to remind him or her to take their drugs. At one level RFID is a smarter barcode and the NFC a replacement for a QR code, but the breakthrough application has probably not been developed yet.
“This is the world of intelligent packaging,” he says, “where the need is for thin, flexible electronics that are robust and low cost.”
CPI has the facilities to help companies develop new electronic components, such as printed sensors and conductive inks in clean room environments and uses a modified label press to create the conductive lines on polymer films or paper. It can take these and integrate additional electronic components to create what McClelland says is now known as flexible hybrid electronics. “We have a machine that can combine conventional and thin film electronics at volume to produce a reel of smart tags and inlays.
Inside the Sedgefield facility, PragmatIC has installed its own line to print the simple thin film integrated circuit that replaces the expensive to produce silicon chip with a piece of film that costs pennies. CEO Scott White says that in the future the company’s partners will have their own FlexLogic print lines to meet the sky rocketing demands. The line at Sedgefield can produce a billion flexible integrated circuits in a year. By 2025, 1 trillion units a year will be needed he says.
“Printed electronics will go from a novelty feature to mainstream in consumer goods,” he says. “There is value to the supply chain management and it will offer something that the consumer finds useful.” And as well as a much lower cost point, the end of life printed circuit will be easily recyclable, unlike silicon. “Many have looked at RFID but have discounted it as not viable because of the price, but that changes with our technology,” he adds.
It is a tall ask to match the performance of a technology that has been around for five decades, but print is up to the task White believes. Last year to endorse this, PragmatIC announced a round of investment that included Avery Dennison. The labels specialist will take the printed circuits from the line at Sedgefield and add antenna and intelligence to deliver smart labels to its customers at an acceptable cost.
On its journey to the installation of the production line, PragmatIC has spent a lot of time with brands trying to understand how connectivity of the technology will improve the consumer experience, extending that communication between brand and purchaser into the commerce world. “We have more customer engagement than we can easily deal with,” he says. Improved visibility across the supply chain is a clear ROI for both brands and retailers. “Brands have to make the customer experience richer and we have a good understanding of the types of content that people are finding interesting.”
Further work will be needed, for example a testing station will need to be added to the line to guarantee the integrity of what is produced, White explains, reliability being paramount. But this will not prevent production for customers. “For the near term we will be testing everything and confirming that it will work,” he says, “failure rates are already low, in single figures, and everything is tested at multiple points during production.”
Brands that want to test concepts using printed electronics have the printing and the assembly alongside each other in the north east and increasingly they have the third element, as data processing start ups are looking at moving in too to create the software that is needed. These will develop the applications that drive demand for the printed electronics. “One is talking about developing a niche application, but it is a niche application that will require millions of tags,” says McClelland.
After simple identification and then environmental or condition monitoring, the next opportunity to be addressed will be communication, where the tag will link the product or its consumer to the internet.
The Internet of Things opportunity overlaps with Industry 4.0, “The smart labels we can create can also be used to track the movement of goods in a factory or through a supply chain,” he says. G5 technology needs smaller transmitters, antennae and opens the way to sensors everywhere. One approach to self driving cars uses multiple sensors built into the bodywork or windows of a vehicle.
The sophistication that is possible goes well beyond current bar code or NFC technology, with applications in many, many areas. And once CPI has proven these with the scale of production that is possible at Newton Aycliffe, others will take this into the wider world to produce the billions of items that will be needed and which will justify the optimistic predictions of the analysts and forecasters as to the size of the printed electronics opportunity.
What McClelland has learned is that there is an opportunity for printers to engage with this technology. “When we started the project we were working closely with the printing industry and quickly realised that printers would need to invest in some integration technology. It’s opening up a new supply chain opportunity in the conversion space, where today people are making RFID tags.”
Printers, particularly in labels and cartons, will come face to face with these tags, however. They will need to apply them to the boxes or the labels, the books, bottles and magazines that are going to be using the technology as the sophistication increases and the cost comes down. “We can prove where the business case lies,” he says. “Though we will find that where the real benefit lies is not where we expect it to be.”
The EU has been an assiduous supporter of printed electronics, helping to bring different companies together under various programmes, most recently Horizon 2020. These are intended to prove the viability of a product or manufacturing approach, bringing a concept to the point where it can be adopted in the commercial world.
These include: Ping, a combination involving PragmatIC, games producer Cartamundi and Belgian packaging printer Van Genechten. The idea is to develop thin film printed electronics that bring interactivity and intelligence to playing cards, board games and packaging. The aim was the creation and “standardisation of low cost and high volume manufacturing flow for embedding wireless identification and transfer technology”. Applications include new types of game, educational games and promotional activities around cartons.
Flextronic was a programme to combine inkjet lay down of conductive printing inks and the application of a laser to burn away excess material to leave lines that are 10 microns wide and 1 micron thick. Future Print worked on conductive inks that are printable. Basmati, a project to prove it is possible and practical to print the batteries needed to power printed sensors and printed electronics.
Inspired, an ongoing project to support industrial scale production of innovative nano materials for printed devices, specifically to produce the inks needed at industrial scale. These become inks that can be fired through inkjet printheads in print lines to produce industrial strength touch screens, solar panels and LED signage. UK company M-Solv is a key part of the consortium having the experience to build the devices needed to print the conductive materials that underpin printed electronics.
M-Solv is also involved with Espresso, a cross EU project that is intended over the next three years to come up with new ways to produce solar panels. The EU is providing 5 million to the project to provenew ways to produce perovskite photovoltaic as an alternative to existing technologies with the potential for greater efficiencies, moving production from the laboratory to a scaleable technology.
Decochrom is a project to print sensors that have applications in medicine, using a printed coloured display that responds to the presence of different chemicals or temperatures. It demonstrated the feasibility of the approach with a batch of 100 wearable ‘activity badges’ for a conference in February this year. A single coin cell battery will power the display for more than a year. The goal is to create “printed electrochromic as the mass producible, print industry compatible, ultra low price interactive graphics solution for ambient intelligence”.
A technology innovation centre, funded as part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) can deliver electronics with print, including RFID and NFC tags and more complex devices.
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A modified label press enables CPI to create conductive lines on polymer films or paper. CPI's focus is on combining electronics with print, from producing relatively simple RFID and NFC tags for track and trace applications to more complex devices, which track the condition of goods as they are shipped across the world.
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PragmatIC's FleLogic’s intelligent automation enables high throughput manufacturing of flexible ICs. In future, the company’s partners will have their own FlexLogic print lines to meet the sky rocketing demands. CPI's line at Sedgefield can produce a billion flexible integrated circuits in a year.
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RFID has been available for over a decade, but take up has been limited because of the cost. A tag that costs 20¢ makes sense for a luxury product, but not one that costs $10, although the tags can play a role in security or anti counterfeiting, largely for higher value products.
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