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Could Disposable Printed Electronics Be the Future of Packaging?

Integrating electronics into everyday life isn't all smartphones and automated cars. Even our disposable products, especially packaging, can become high tech. Silicon-free printed electronics could give rise to tech that's designed to be thrown away.

Changing Product Design and Fabrication with Printed

Printed electronics have made the news multiple times in the past year. They offer the electronics industry something that has only ever been available to semiconductor manufacturers in the past: the ability to have a fully customized circuit with customized components.
Currently, production of the typical circuit board goes something like this: First, the board is designed and printed. When the PCB is ready to be populated, parts are ordered from distributors which are then placed onto the PCB either by hand or by machine. Once the parts are in place, the PCB (with components) is then sent to be placed into the final product (unless the PCB, itself, is the final product).
If a design change is needed in this process, engineers may need to do some redesigning (sometimes of the PCB overall), change the component list, and then change the entire production line to account for this change. The time it takes to make changes can cost a company both money and resources with typical PCB lead times being seven days. These seven days translate to seven days of stalled production and consequently, seven days of effectively no sales.
This is where printed electronics can really make a difference. Imagine a circuit has been designed and needs to be prototyped. Instead of sending for the PCB to be fabricated and then hand-constructing the unit, the printed design is sent to a 3D printer which produces the functioning circuit (with all connections) in a matter of hours. The final product, also made from printed electronics, takes only hours to produce with few intermediate steps and non-reliance on distributors for parts. If a design change is needed, it can be made easily by feeding the new designs to the fabricator where immediate changes can be made to the new circuits made on the production line.
Printed electronics may have another potential use that silicon may never be able to match: mass production in the trillions.

The Problem with Silicon

Silicon enables the creation of all manner of circuits ranging from power control to high-end computer processing. For the past 50 years, silicon has been able to fulfill industry demand by providing better devices every year. While semiconductor device power is slowly approaching its limit, there is one aspect of semiconductor devices that the industry has not thought of. Currently, some 20 billion microcontrollers are produced which is more than enough for applications such as computing, IoT devices, and other devices. However, if electronics are to be integrated into all products, including packaging for commercial items in shops, then 20 billion devices just won't cut it.
So how can printed electronics help here?


Silicon chip on an RFID tag. Image courtesy of Maschinenjunge [CC BY 3.0]

Electronics needed for all packaging (including a box of six eggs) do not need to be overly advanced with peripherals such as USB, TCP stacks, or even GPIO. In order to make everyday packaging high tech, such devices would only need a very basic processor connected to a near field communication link, so that functions such as security scanning and product information could be implemented. This is exactly what ThinFilm (a Norwegian Company) is planning to do.

Tiny, Printable, Disposable Processors

Currently, ThinFilm specializes in printed electronics in the form of smart labels for perishable products (such as food), non-volatile printed memory, and near field communication.
To meet the expected demand for the integration of electronics, the company purchased a manufacturing facility in Silicon Valley which it will retrofit to produce some five billion printed devices that are estimated to have a value of $680 million.
What makes these devices “mass production friendly” is that they are fabricated on a flexible substrate that can be reeled like paper. So not only are these devices easier to produce than semiconductors, they are both flexible and easily stored. The fact that these devices can be stored on rolls make them ideal for the packaging industry which uses paper and cardboard on near identical rolls. Therefore, these devices could be, in theory, loaded into similar machinery and then stamped onto the required packaging (effectively integrating multiple stages into one continuous operation).
Their non-volatile printed memory technology has already been purchased by Xerox who already has production-scale manufacturing taking place in Webster, NY.


Printed rolls of memory. Image courtesy of ThinFilm

However, this is not enough for ThinFilm, and they are currently working towards a more radical plan: to have an entire processor printed on their substrate (though it would be a simplistic processor). The current goal is to integrate several thousand logic gates in the hope of creating a device that has the computational power of the Intel 4004 (which had 2,400 gates).
Their near field communication device has 1500 gates, whereas their temperature sensor has 2,000 gates. This means that (in theory), they are only 400 gates shy of a 4004 processor. While many may believe that a device as simple as a 4004 is no longer relevant in the world, creating one on this substrate would actually be an extremely relevant accomplishment. A label armed with a 4-bit processor and some non-volatile memory could suddenly be used to process data such as item ID changes, date changes, sensor processing, and much more.


A ThinFilm device. Image courtesy of ThinFilm

The use of such simple processors in product packaging (along with near field communication, found in many smartphones) can open customers and distributors to a whole new world. For example, the printed labels could be scanned by a smartphone and return information, including the authenticity of the product, potential allergy warnings, and manufacturing details.




Summary


Printed electronics is going to be the largest sector of electronics if it does not replace standard electronic practices altogether. While the devices made by ThinFilm are very simple, they clearly have advantages when it comes to mass production and the art of integrating electronics into mundane objects, starting with the packaging that we throw out every day.

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