Printed Electronics’ Next Killer Apps

We are exhibitors at Printed Electronics USA 2010Converting Quarterly will exhibit (Booth 21) at Printed Electronics USA 2010. Visit our booth and follow my on-site reports on Twitter. -CC

By Dr. Peter Harrop, chairman, IDTechEx

Every major consumer goods company now has a program to adopt printed electronics throughout its activities. When we at IDTechEx  present to companies and their brand-facing suppliers, it’s common for the people entering the room to think of themselves as practicing skills based on plastics, paper and printing and leave the room realizing they’re now part of the electronics industry—or that they need to be as a matter of some urgency.

It’s happening in a back-to-front way. Printed and partly printed electronics and electrics are not being applied to very expensive things or electronic things first. It’s more about modernizing printing more than it’s about modernizing electronics. We’re not even starting with lowest-volume applications. The first applications involving billions of units a year happened some years ago. They included the tester on the primary packaging of Duracell batteries, a GSI tamper-detecting sensor on pharmaceuticals and making membrane keyboards.

The popular understanding that printed electronics is all about cost-reduction of existing products is wrong. The battery tester permits you to check your battery when on the move and away from home, and a similar idea is behind this year’s printed healthcare testers. The electronic tamper-detector can be checked by automation at high speed. Membrane keyboards are waterproof, flexible and last longer, so all these examples are about making something new possible.

Partly printed RFID labels are applied to only about 50 million retail pallet loads yearly—a loss-making business for almost everyone concerned. By contrast, most successes in printed electronics involve the public. There is a place for printed electronics without a human interface such as anti-theft tags and covert tamper-detection, but it’s not the biggest opportunity.

In our report, “Brand Enhancement by Electronics in Packaging 2010-2020”, the profusion of case studies mostly involve printed and potentially printed electronics. The majority—15 case studies—involve primary packaging. Eight concern smart labels and only two concern secondary packaging. That will change—particularly where secondary packaging opens up to become point-of-sale promotion. However, it still seems strange given that printed electronics usually costs more. For example, 30 billion coin cells are sold every year at an average post-factory price of only 1.1 cents. Printed equivalents cost 10 to 100 times as much as that. Printed batteries are used in electrophoretic skin patches delivering drugs because a coin cell can stop blood flow.

With printed electronics in general, something new can happen, and this is often so dramatic that it’s funded by the fat media budget of the brand, not the slim packaging budget. Esquire magazine used a $15 animated electronic display funded by a Ford car promotion; then Entertainment Age magazine had a $25-plus moving color display with sound funded by a Pepsi Cola promotion. A scrolling light-emitting Kent cigarette-multipack display, costing several dollars, was funded as a one-million piece promotion.

The dramatic new benefits of printed electronics have now been seen in successful Japanese roadside posters that emit an aroma when someone walks near, and flexible, disposable, solar-powered interactive posters currently on trial. A new cookie point-of-sale has a little shelf with a disposable printed heater that warms the cookie before you eat it. Some cellphone decoration now changes to reflect the person calling—each has their own pattern. Interactive furniture, floor covering and drapes are for sale this year thanks to printed electronics.

Printed electronics are being used to rejuvenate some old printed products. McDonald’s placemats, Hallmark party tablecloths and Hasbro and Character Visions boardgames have been made interactive with sound and light emission. Primary packages talk to tell you if you have won a prize or reinforce an advertisement. Tear-off rewards on primary packaging are now becoming electronic. T-Ink made a pass to a golf event double as a radio tuned to the event’s live commentary.

We now see a rich seam of exploitation based on printed electronics that is waterproof, washable and molded into plastic without damage. FM/AM/GPS/GSM antennas in cars are printed, then molded to shape in plastic body parts. Completely printed and laminated replacements for instrument clusters and wiring will save weight, cost and space in 2011 cars.

A good indication of where printed electronics is next headed comes from the speaker, exhibitor and delegate line up for Printed Electronics USA, which takes place in Santa Clara, CA, in December. There will be many new materials, processes and devices revealed. The next wave includes:

  • Routine letterpress printing of graphics that gives a mirror-like effect can now be modified slightly by Printechnologics to give conductive patterns “free,” rather in the way that barcodes printed as part of graphics are “free.” Those conductive patterns can now be read by cellphone.
  • Billboards from JC Decaux and Kraft, Boeing’s needs in aerospace and what the US Army is doing show the breadth of application is becoming remarkable, way beyond what the silicon chip and conventional display can tackle.
  • MWV Packaging explains why packaging is already a killer application, while Kovio has 1,000 transistors printed roll-to-roll into smart tickets.
  • Giants IBM and Panasonic will announce new forms of photovoltaics, and Bayer describing its entry into printed electroactive polymers for touch typing.
  • Healthcare killer apps such as diagnostic skin patches, biosensors and smart drug packaging being announced by five companies. For example, some blisterpacks now set a timer when you remove a tablet so you are reminded when to take another. Others let you record spoken impressions and record which tablet was taken when, making drug-trial data more meaningful. ♦
This entry was posted in coating/laminating, digital printing, flexible packaging, labels, package printing, paper/paperboard/cartons, printed electronics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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