Printed Electronics in 2012: The Year in Review

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 01.22.13

In recent years, the printed electronics (PE) industry has made gains in a wide range of disciplines, from components, materials and equipment to research that have the potential to open up new opportunities. Each year, industry conferences host speakers from major corporations who discuss possible end uses for printed electronic systems.

However, there has been a relative lack of products breaking the commercial threshold and actually hitting the market. The good news is that the PE industry is now gaining traction in the market, with products receiving notice.

Once companies see how competitors are using PE to their benefit, even more opportunities will arise.

Now is an ideal time to look back at 2012’s major developments, and what might be in store as 2013 nears.

Perhaps the biggest news that has come out in 2012 is the commercial partnership between Thin Film Electronics (Thinfilm) and Bemis, one of the largest packaging companies in the world. By 2014, Bemis plans on utilizing Thinfilm’s Intelligent Packaging Platform to develop a flexible sensing platform for the packaging market, to create a new category of packaging that can collect and wirelessly communicate information such as important physical properties and environmental data in packaged perishable products.

Thinfilm works closely with PARC on its printed memory systems, and in order to meet Bemis’s needs, Thin Film has built an ecosystem with Imprint Energy, Acreo AB, PST Sensors, Polyera, Solvay and Inktec. This project has the potential to be huge.

PragmatIC Printing is another PE specialist, working in the field of imprinted logic circuits. PragmatIC has its own ecosystem, working with the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), Enfucell and Printed Electronics Limited, and is developing a project with Illinois Tool Works (ITW). ITW will combine PragmatIC’s printed electronics with decorative and security features to enable fully converted functional solutions across a range of form factors including foils, labels, inlays and packaging

T-Ink is a major PE innovator, moving from novelty products years ago to a wide range of projects, headlined by its development of printed capacitive switches to replace overhead control panels on the Ford Fusion.

Printechnologics, which is partly owned by 3M, has earned much attention for its Touchcode technology, which allows printed smart cards to be read by cell phones. The technology drew a great deal of attention when Touchcode was recognized as Overall Gold Winner in Wall Street Journal’s prestigious 2012 Technology Innovation Awards. Now, T-Ink and Printechnologics will be working together to further that technology.

The past year has seen other changes. There have been continued investments being made in some businesses, while some other companies, notably Konarka and Abound Solar, have gone out of business. The PE industry made its debut at drupa, the major printing trade show, which had an audience of more than 300,000 attendees, many of whom were intrigued by PE’s potential.Meanwhile, major display manufacturers such as Samsung are working closely with PE leaders such as Universal Display and Novaled on new OLED technologies.

Most Intriguing PE Products of 2012

The printed electronics (PE) industry is seeing a movement toward commercialization, and once a product reaches the market, other companies notice, and if the product does have benefits, it will be imitated.

It got me to thinking about which printed electronics products are really game-changers. Here is a list of five of the most intriguing products that have come to the market during the past year; these products have been in development for years. This is by no means a comprehensive list.

In no particular order:

• T-Ink - T-Ink Smart Surface 3D In-mold Overhead Console

Arguably the leading PE innovator, T-Ink has built up an impressive range of projects during the past 10 years. The company has developed more than 2,000 ink formulations for PE projects, and its design team has come up with a vast array of products that have reached the market. T-Ink has major projects in the pipeline, ranging from automotive and white goods to displays, textiles and security applications.

The T-Ink Smart Surface 3D In-mold Overhead Console, featuring screen printed capacitive switches, is perhaps the most interesting development. Recently launched in the 2013 Ford Fusion, the console is printed on the B-side, and requires 14 layers. It is printed flat and then formed, trimmed and molded. The console is two inches thinner, lighter and less expensive that the previous approach, and the company has already produced more than a million of these consoles.

• hin Film Electronics

Sensors are quickly becoming one of the best potential uses for printed electronics (PE), as the combination of flexible form factors, functionality and cost are indeed intriguing. Thus, the news that Bemis Company, a leading supplier of flexible packaging and pressure sensitive materials with sales of $5.3 billion in 2011, and Thin Film Electronics ASA (Thinfilm) are working together on Thinfilm’s Intelligent Packaging Platform to develop a flexible sensing platform for the packaging market makes a lot of sense.

The stated goal is to create a new category of packaging that can collect and wirelessly communicate information such as important physical properties and environmental data in packaged perishable products. In addition to partnering with PARC on development of printed logic, Thinfilm has announced technology partnerships with a number of key PE companies, including Acreo, Imprint Energy, Inktec, Polyera, PST Sensors and Solvay to develop integrated printed systems, such as an inexpensive, integrated time-temperature sensor for use in monitoring perishable goods and pharmaceuticals.

This type of sensor would be utilized by industries ranging from food and consumer products to healthcare. The Bemis Intelligent Packaging Platform is expected to be commercially available in 2014. In recognitionof its achievements, The World Technology Network selected Thinfilm as the winner of the prestigious 2012 World Technology Award for Materials, and the company also received honorable mention from the Wall Street Journal’s Technology Innovation Awards.

• Printechnologics - Touchcode

Earning the Gold Winner award from the Wall Street Journal’s Technology Innovation Awards is an extremely prestigious honor. This year, the Gold Winner was Printechnologics for itsTouchcode technology. Touchcode also received the Wireless category for enabling a seamless connection between off- and online content.

Touchcode is one of the largest success stories in the field of printed electronics. Touchcode is an invisible data tag which can be printed by offset on nearly any surface – including paper, carton or foil – and establishes a link between online and offline communications. Printechnologics has surpassed 25 million Touchcodes in the market, and anticipated reaching 100 million in 2012.

Among the notable companies to use Touchcode are ICON,iSupergol and Nukotoys. Now, the compnay has joined forces with T-Ink on its TouchPac joint venture, which should further accelerate Touchcode’s growth.

• Cambrios Technologies: ClearOhm coating material

Cambrios’ ClearOhm coating material is ideal for replacing ITO (indium tin oxide) for producing transparent conductors.ITO is brittle and requires high temperature to get conductivity, which makes it incompatible with flexible and plastic substrates, and it is expensive, as it has to be manufactured using vacuum deposition, which has limited throughput. ClearOhm is manufactured using highly conductive silver nanowires, and is presently produced through slot die coating; the company is developing gravure capabilities.

ClearOhm is already in use in commercial touch screens, including the LG V325, a new Windows 8-certified All-in-One PC.

• Kovio - !FaST Tags

Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS)  devices are a necessary inconvenience for retailers in order to reduce theft, but consumers don’t like bulky “hard tag” plastic attachments that can also damage the goods. The thin and light “soft tags” often send signals even after being deactivated. To eliminate these problems, Kovio has developed !FaST, its new EAS tag system based on Kovio’s EASD technology, which has been unveiled by Nedap Retail, a European specialist in anti-theft systems.

Utilizing silicon-based ink, !FaST tags are coated, screen or inkjet printed on stainless steel substrates and embedded into clothing, shoes and other products. Roll-out of the !FaST system, which could ultimately reach billions of tags, will begin shortly.