Packaging Digest conducted an exclusive interview with Heidi Arnesen, communications manager, Thinfilm Electronics ASA, Oslo, Norway, about the company's printed electronics technology.
Q: What are the basics of Thinfilm's technology and what distinguishes it from competitive products?
Arnesen: Our product is "memory" printed on a polymer-based substrate instead of using silicon and chips. The polymer can be PET or PEN (polyethylene naphthalate). What that means is that we can produce low-end memory cheaply on roll-to-roll machinery and print thousands at a time. This puts the cost in pennies rather than dollars. Our standard 20-bit memory label does not compete with silicon. It can be used, for example, in games to store a player profile and his or her score. It can also be used in brand protection where only a two- or four-bit memory is needed to store a unique electrical signature.
We have three basic products:
1. A memory label for toys and games that's the size of a credit card or a smaller label for brand protection.
2. A sensor label that senses temperature and/or moisture or gasses depending on the sensor.
3. A display label that will display for instance whether a package has passed a certain preset threshold-it can display whatever you would like. This one would be powered through external connections to a battery source. We have recently proven that we can print a low-voltage display driver and will show in October 2013 a stand-alone smart label system.
Q: What are the costs?
Arnesen: Costs depend on what kind of tag you want. For brand protection, it's two pennies per label. The integrated system is 30 to 50 cents per tag. That's compared to a silicon-based tag, where, for example, it would cost $14 [actual online price per unit for 25-unit order] to put a silicon-based time/temperature tag on a box of melons. Our tag is so cheap that it can be discarded with the packaging.
Q: What is your company's intent with this technology?
Arnesen: Our goal is to enable the Internet of Things: To make everyday items a little bit smarter. You can't have silicon on every item in the world because there isn't enough silicon--it would be too expensive. But with printed electronics, we can do this at a cost point that everyone can afford. It's about creating a world filled with smart, interactive objects. You don't need a lot of memory to be able to do these; you need just enough and our memory can provide just enough.
Q: Is your company's product a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag?
Arnesen: No, not yet. Currently, our tag uses a different protocol than RFID and is read by a proprietary, contact-based reader that could authenticate the electronic signature. We are working on a wireless way of reading the memory in some way, but it will not be RFID. I think it will be two to three years before we will have a wireless tag. In 2014, we will offer a complete integrated system with battery.
Q: What's the advantage of a polymer-based form factor?
Arnesen: With a printed polymer you can do much more than just store memory. We can print an integrated system for instance, which allows us to print not only memory, but also print a sensor and have display logic. For instance, we can print a sensor that can read the temperature of a product. This could be placed on a bag of lettuce or a package of fish to confirm for the customer that this particular product has been kept the right temperature for its entire voyage to the store. I'm not sure you can do that with a paper-based tag. With polymer we can print everything on the substrate, including an antenna, so that it actually responds when it is read.
Q: What interest and potential do you see for your technology for packaged products?
Arnesen: We have an arrangement with Bemis Co. (see "Thinfilm receives grant to develop Sensor Labels" below) in which it plans to use our labels on packages. While Bemis is just one company, it manufactures two billion packages a year and if more packaging suppliers get on board, that's a huge amount.
Q: Thinfilm has received a grant from Innovation Norway. How will that help your company?
Arnesen: Getting this grant from Innovation Norway is a huge act of trust reflective of how strongly they feel we are contributing to building this type of business. It not only benefits our company, it's recognition that our company benefits Norway. The grant was given for this particular integrated system that we're developing with Bemis.
Q: Is your technology self-developed or do you work with other companies?
Arnesen: We collaborate with other companies to make our products. We have an ecosystem of partners: Parc (www.parc.com), a Xerox company, has developed the transistors, the logics for an integrated system. Polyera (www.polyera.com) provides the ink. Other partners that we've collaborated with on the display are Acreo (www.acreo.se) and Imprint Energy (www.imprintenergy.com) for the battery for the integrated system. They all contribute for the end result of an integrated printed label.
Q: Anything else you can share?
Arnesen: Besides Bemis, we also have a deal for brand protection with a global packaged consumer goods company that has not been released.
Thinfilm Electronics, +47 95 93 73 99
Thinfilm receives grant to develop Sensor Labels
Innovation Norway's Industrial Research and Development Program recently awarded Thinfilm a grant of 7 million kroner (approximately US$1.2 million) for commercializing Sensor Labels. The project is in collaboration with The Bemis Co., a major supplier of flexible packaging materials used by leading food, consumer products and healthcare companies worldwide.
Thinfilm, together with Bemis, is developing an intelligent packaging platform based on Thinfilm's temperature-sensing label. Sensor Labels monitor and record key physical properties and environmental data. The addition of radio-frequency communication to Thinfilm's platform will allow wireless communication of sensor information to other devices, such as smartphones enabled with near field communications (NFC).
Thinfilm partner Inktec (www.inktec.com) in South Korea is contributing its printing expertise to the program. Commercial products based on Thinfilm's sensor platform are expected in 2014 and 2015.
Editor's Note: We asked Bemis to comment on its involvement, but were unable to gain a response. One source reported that the Bemis Intelligent Packaging Platform is expected to be commercially available in 2014.
For more on printed technology, see PowerCoat: Energized paper published August 15, 2013.