Satisfied with printed electronics so far?

By Lisa McTigue Pierce in Smart Packaging on April 15, 2014

Hollywood often tells us how much a movie cost to make so we’ll be suitably impressed with the studio’s commitment to totally wow us.

So I was amazed to learn that companies developing printed electronics are spending from a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars to make prototypes. These numbers come from research done by IDTechEx, producers of Printed Electronics events around the world.

As we all know, risk-adverse packaging developers and engineers often need proof-of-concept on emerging technologies. But how long do we wait until they are no longer “emerging”? I was doing articles about packaging applications using printed electronics in 2008. One example back then was British American Tobacco’s Kent cigarettes carton. A panel of the reusable package was printed with conductive ink and displayed a scrolling message when it was touched.

Fast forward six years and the number of commercialized packaging applications is still pretty low, in my opinion. But I can see that changing rapidly—and perhaps overnight.

 IDTechEx polled end users, asking what they want in printed electronics. The answers are enlightening.

More brand owners are pursuing printed electronics programs—and with dedicated staff. Not surprising, most of the work is going on in secret to protect intellectual property (IP) and ensure a competitive edge. “Many users see printed electronics adding value by enabling differentiated products and interactivity,” reports IDTechEx.

Two other insights from the study:

1. “End users do not want to become integrators themselves, they want to see complete solutions or prototypes that they feel is currently lacking in the industry.” (Those huge investment dollars mentioned above now make more sense.)

2. “The technical performance has fallen short of expectations, as has cost reduction: many are starting with simple devices, finding that more sophisticated devices are too complex right now.”

A recent promising development that addresses the performance and cost issues is an agreement between T+ink, a leader in conductive ink technology and Edison award winner, and Sun Chemical, the largest global producer of inks. In partnership, they have formed T+sun to develop new conductive ink solutions designed to engage consumers with interactive packages, as well as to help manage inventory systems.

Terry Kaiserman, chief technology officer at T+ink, explains that conductive ink “offers more security than QR codes” and can replace radio frequency identification (RFID) at “a fraction of the cost.”

When asked how conductive ink offers more security than QR (quick-response) codes, Kaiserman explains about the company’s Touchcode technology, which is sensed and recognized through the capacitive screen on a smartphone. “Touchcode conductive ink signatures cannot be easily replicated by a counterfeiter,” he says. “QR codes can be photocopied and reproduced by anyone. Touchcode technology is embedded at time of packaging printing or container fabrication. It’s invisible on the packaging.”

And when asked what percentage of the cost of RFID, he reiterates, “It’s a fraction of the cost—depending on the type of package, substrate and ink formulation.”

If you haven’t been impressed with advancements in printed electronics so far, just wait. The next wave of high-impact, cost-effective packaging applications is sure to get your attention—and the attention of shoppers.

Oh, and that Kent cigarette carton example from 2008? That was a T+ink project.

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