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The Next Wave of Flexographic Printing: Printed Electronics

Posted by James Dulong

Jun 20, 2017 8:02:00 AM

electronic printing circuit board.jpgThe cries of “print is dead” have proven to be a bit premature as even the mighty company Amazon is now in the process of opening old-fashioned, brick and mortar stores that sell actual, physical books!

But beyond the traditional realm of printing, which is ink to paper, printing as a whole is undergoing many new developments that secure its value in our modern, technology-centric society.

“3D printing” as it is called, is a new technique that allows the creation of actual physical objects, relying on polymers rather than ink as the medium of creation. And now, thanks to new advances in materials and printing research, another new frontier is quickly opening up to the benefit of both businesses and society: printed electronics.

The Nanoscale Advantage

In the past, the idea of printing electronics, while extremely attractive, was not feasible. The biggest limiting factors where the materials needed to create a working, conductive circuit, and the sizes required to do this cost-effectively, negated many of the more creative, “pie in the sky” ideas people had for the potential of this medium.

Today, however, many of those limitations are falling by the wayside. Carbon nanotubes are the big breakthrough in this area. This approach meets many of the needs that designers and engineers have, as carbon nanotubes are tiny in scale, but have the conductivity, precision, and flexibility to be adapted into a fluid form and then applied onto a substance in a tiny, precise configuration.

In one fell swoop, the use of carbon nanotubes as the printing material allows for greater flexibility and durability, while retaining the conductive properties required, and the precision needed to create circuits at a tiny scale with no variation or “bleed” that would interfere with the operation of the circuit.

The Future of Printing

While the technology is still in its infancy, the most exciting thing about all this is it that it’s proven; it actually works. In the same way that cellular phones originally started as large, ungainly, expensive devices that eventually evolved, then exploded into the indispensable, everyday objects they are today, the potential for cheap, reliable printed electronics is staggering in its application.

Almost every aspect of daily life could benefit from a high-tech enhancement in some way, but the cost of doing so has always been prohibitive. If printing electronics becomes as widespread and as cost effective as printing ink on paper, the game changes in major ways. Electronics can be printed right onto coffee cups to monitor the temperature and ratio of ingredients. Shelves with price tags could be printed to keep track of stock and automatically monitor pick-ups and purchases. Clothing can be printed with circuitry so that it can generate power and/or interact with other devices, providing either health-related or entertainment information.

With electronic printing, some processes that are now handled by factories could be offloaded to the printing industry, for cheaper, faster results, allowing the cost of electronics to drop even further, and allow it to be implemented in many new, unforeseen ways.

When everything around you can potentially have electronic circuitry incorporated cheaply and seamlessly, the design possibilities for health, retail, and entertainment purposes take on new and exciting perspectives. The “Internet of Things” just got a big boost of feasibility thanks to this development.

Just like in traditional printing, the process used for printed electronics requires adequate viscosity control to prevent metal inks and other particles from migrating into unwanted areas, clogging the nozzle, etc.

Learn to quickly identify and solve issues that could arise in your flexographic print process. Get your free copy of our Flexographic Troubleshooting Guide.

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