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Customising the world in print
Printed electronics will soon revolutionize the production in many industrial sectors and therefore were presented at drupa 2012 in the drupa innovation park. Together with the OE-A (Organic Electronics Association) multiple printed electronics companies exhibit fascinated innovations there. Furthermore there was a focus day “Printed Electronics” in the drupa cube on the 12th of May. On that day leading printed electronics companies like Heraeus, PolyIC, Plastic Logic and Printechnologics presented their newest product applications.
What is printed electronics? An interactive business card with a flexible display or a board game with a printed battery and flashing OLEDs – the scope and fields of application for printed electronics are highly diversified. So much so that the Organic and Printed Electronics Association (OE-A), a working group within VDMA, was set up a few years ago to create a communication and development interface for the various fields of research. It represents the entire value chain of organic electronics, from the materials supplier and equipment and product manufacturer through to the user, and now has over 180 members worldwide. The OE-A's goal is to issue “road maps” that serve as a guide to the multitude of technical developments and help to define possible areas of application. While many of the developments of OE-A members are still in the test phase in the lab, a whole series of applications are already in practical use. For the OE-A member companies, among them Agfa, BASF, Bayer, Evonik Degussa, Fujifilm, manroland, Mekoprint Electronics, Merck, Mitsubishi, PloyC and Solarmer Energy, the printing industry is of huge importance.
Electronic printing – more than meets the eye
To structure the multitude of possibilities in the field of electronic printing, the OE-A classifies the current printed electronics technologies in five main groups, all of which at present cover familiar application areas:
- Lighting (OLED)
- Electronic components (printed RFIDs or memories, batteries)
- Organic photovoltaics
- Intelligent systems (Integrated Smart Systems (ISS), sensors)
Whatever the element – flexible displays, photovoltaic systems or circuits for RFID chips or for sensors – they can be used individually or in combination.
Printed batteries and sensors for glucose tests, for instance, are products that are already in mass production today. Flexible organic solar cells and e-Ink (electronic ink) displays are also already on the market. These products are manufactured by using modified sheet-fed offset presses and special web printing systems along with coating and laminating devices. Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are already in use in displays, and also available are the first OLED lamps, which are currently still being produced by the vacuum process on glass substrates. Printed data memories and RFID chips, like the technology as a whole, are currently making the transition to industrial production, in digital or roll-to-roll printing processes.
Sensors, batteries and lighting – all printed
Logistics is the main beneficiary of RFID chips. These store information and transfer it to a central system via contactless reading devices and thus help to monitor the goods chain and combat product piracy. The huge potential of printed electronics will reveal itself above all when its use makes economic sense and yields benefits not only on the secondary packaging but also on the individual product itself – thanks to reduced costs and simpler integration. In the medical industry, millions of such printed sensors are already in use.
Particularly exciting are the areas in which light or energy (organic photovoltaics), for example, can be generated inexpensively and with devices in totally new formats (thin and flexible). It is also a question here of the environmentally compatible production and efficient use of resources. Electronic books with organic control electronics that in the future will also permit displays that can be flexed or even rolled up are another fast-expanding field of application. And for intelligent packages, combining such items as sensors, a battery, display, logic and RFID, strong growth is expected in the medium to long term.
Quantum leap for the printing industry
All the above-mentioned functions (displays, energy, light, unique identification, interaction thanks to integrated intelligence) will be available to the printing industry in the future. Precisely because of their additional benefit, these functions will be of interest to customers and readers alike. Thanks to the use of nanotechnology, it will be possible, for instance, to print even ultra-thin displays on tickets, greeting cards, packages and also in magazines and catalogues.
Publishers are already experimenting with integrated displays and other additional functions for their print products. In cooperation with its customer Otto, Gruner + Jahr, for instance, has realised a high-grade video display (a video in print ad) in the magazine Gala on which current campaign videos and other moving picture material from Otto has been integrated. A four-page insert was film-welded with the issue of the Gala. When the insert was opened, it revealed the only 2.7 mm thick LCD screen coated with a scratch-resistant polycarbonate layer. With the aid of three operating buttons at the side, readers could then navigate through different audiovisual content. For the advertiser, this represents a quantum leap; for the printing industry, it realistically offers huge potential. However, it is important to bear in mind that this application brings two different worlds together and thus calls for high levels of skill (in terms of IT, for example). Training is therefore a necessary precondition for the ability to exploit this potential. The opportunity lies in combining conventional print technologies with the targeted use of these new elements. It will then be possible to develop new lines of business in a new market.
Organic electronics – a new form of package “finishing”
This applies particularly to the packaging market, because no other branch of the printing industry can boast as many realistic fields of application for these new technologies. For instance, sensors on packages can identify the information that the consumer needs. From integrated NFC chips, the consumer obtains information on the authenticity of the purchased product. Major infrastructural investment in the mass production of organic and printed electronics can be currently observed worldwide. This would suggest a sharp rise in production capacity for such items as sensors, memory components, e-readers, organic solar cells (OPV) and OLED lighting. All of these developments are based on the advantageous characteristics of organic materials and innovative inkjet and screen printing processes. The result is novel, lightweight, flexible and tough products – the next wave of previously unfeasible, innovative industrial applications and low-cost consumer appliances.
Thanks to the many different possible applications, the potential for the future seems to be virtually limitless. Market analysts are forecasting multi-million potential for the market. However, first of all it will be a matter of getting started and taking the first steps to build up the market. This is the reason why multiple printed electronics companies gained the chance to present themselves at the platform drupa innovation park in line with the printing industry.