Tomorrow’s printed-electronics job shop?

Graph Expo 2010 LogoCal Poly State University professor Malcolm G. Keif is a self-proclaimed optimist. He says, as an academic, he’s the most unthreatening kind of guy. So, in his overarching presentation Sunday at Graph Expo 2010 on current questions swirling around printed electronics (PE) and tomorrow’s challenges for the technology, he spoke super-positively about PE but also with a touch of technical realism.

What does he see for the $55+ billion market for electroluminescent displays, thin-film batteries, photovoltaics, sensors and transistors that may come to fruition by 2020? And what’s needed to economically manufacture PE?

Three things, Keif says. 1) Better design and engineering with novel concepts and circuitry. 2) Better inks and substrates (conductive, dieletric and semiconductive). And 3) Better patterning and coating methods. He checked off details on the improvements required.

  • Finer patterning resolutions. ~About 10,000-dpi would help.
  • Much more uniform coating methods through better understanding of morphology.
  • Improved registration at speeds of more than 100 fpm.
  • The ability to lay down consistent IFTs (ink film thicknesses) down to 200 nm and up to 100 microns.
  • New organic polymers and inorganic materials with better conduction properties and appropriate viscosities.

Once the three legs of this technology come together, could printing electronics become as commonplace as printing other stuff?  “The current model is focused around products,” Keif says. Manufacturing processes are centered only on making electronic components or already finished products. The future will likely integrate graphics with electronics or other functional imaging, be it through offset, flexo, screen, gravure or inkjet.

“Printing presses will be able to integrate functional (electronic) components inline with graphics,” he says, for things such as smart and active packaging, displays in magazines or packaging, and security features built into credit cards, IDs and packaging.

My Thoughts: The “Jetsons” world of everyday printed electronics is kind of like similar promises from that 1960s TV cartoon show. Flying cars, moving sidewalks everywhere, household robots…we all can visualize them, but when will they become reality? It’s not through lack of trying. So, will there be a printed-electronics job shop in the future? Personally, I have no doubt about it. All technological developments are evolutionary. It may not happen by 2020, but it WILL happen.

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