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Emerging Printing Technologies — Business Lines Are Forming

November 2007 By Mark Smith
Technology Editor
FLYING CARS and colonies in space were once seriously predicted to be a reality by now. Closer to home, though, experts also said that Adobe Photoshop and the Mac would never be acceptable for professional graphic arts applications.

Any attempt to predict the course of technological development amounts to an educated guess at best. Even once a prototype has been developed, the scale-up to volume production can be problematic. Often, it is an unexpected development that leads to success.

Printed electronics, security printing and lenticular are three technological developments that may hold opportunities for commercial printers. Each is still a work in process to a degree, so the exact size and nature of their market potential is yet to be determined.

The term “printed electronics” (printing of conductive inks) is being applied to such a wide range of processes and applications that it’s hard to make any definitive statements about opportunities for commercial printers. The raw numbers are very impressive, though.

In its market report—“Organic & Printed Electronics Forecasts, Players & Opportunities 2007-2027”—the IDTechEx research firm forecasts the market for currently and potentially printed electronics (including organic, inorganic and composite materials) to increase from $1.18 billion in 2007 to $48.2 billion in 2017, and more than $300 billion in 2027.

Today, conductive inks, sensors and OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays account for almost all of that volume, the firm says, with 31.6 percent of these electronics already being fully or partially printed. That figure will rise to 90.3 percent by 2017, projects the Cambridge, MA-based company.

Future Developments

The bad news: Aspects of the process are keeping offset lithography in the “possible future development” category. Also, much of the forecasted market potential of printed electronics is in making components for other manufacturing operations that may set it up as a captive process.

“Electronic” paper is the development track most likely to impact commercial printing in the nearest term. There are two technology branches in this category.

E-paper developers have sought to produce cost-effective, flexible displays that can be used in place of printed materials. The initial flurry of activity in this arena created a lot of buzz that has since tapered off.

An alternative approach now showing promise is adding printed electronic components to substrates used in conventional (digital or offset) printing. Paper, paperboard and other materials can be made dynamic and interactive with the addition of sound and/or lighting effects, even text displays. Posters, packaging, calendars, floor graphics and even wallpaper are among the applications being developed.

T-Ink in New York has been very active in this area, having produced examples with Hallmark, MeadWestvaco, NewsAmerica and Sears that used a variety of materials. Polymertronics in the U.K. is developing a process for embedding lights into substrates for flatbed or rollfed ink-jet printers.

For the printed electronics industry as a whole, ink-jet printing has become a leading production process in the current generation of development efforts, but may present challenges in scaling up to volume production. Screen printing was used for much of the pioneering work and continues to be a contender, although it has weaknesses in terms of printing fine lines and productivity. Some development has been done with flexo, and it is considered a very promising technology going forward.

Offset lithography’s production potential is still largely theoretical. NanoMarkets, a research firm based in Glen Allen, VA, recently published a white paper—titled “The Future of Flexography and Lithography in Printed Electronics”—that it offers as a free download at While the fine lines and high productivity achievable with offset have appeal in electronics printing, NanoMarkets says the ink formulation requirements of the process are a hindrance in this application.

The research firm contends that the high profile currently enjoyed by ink-jet printing is at least partly due to the promotion efforts of equipment vendors. It believes “flexo will certainly have a leg up on the other processes,” particularly in RFID/label printing.

Security printing is an expanding class of technology, especially on the digital side, that may offer printers a way to differentiate their capabilities. New developments are making it more affordable to add security features primarily designed to prevent counterfeiting, but also tampering.

Kodak Traceless led off the new spate of introductions. It uses special marker materials that are invisible to the eye, but can be detected by special handheld readers. The technology works with conventional and digital printing methods.

Create Complex Designs

Also suited to both processes, Agfa Graphics’ Secuseal is a plug-in for Adobe Illustrator that enables users to create complex designs and backgrounds in printed pieces that are difficult to reproduce.

For a basic level of protection, using microtext (as small as 1 pt.) and white or gloss printing—in combination with variable data—are techniques that have become commonplace in the digital arena. Some vendors are going beyond that level of protection.

Invisible ink and alphanumeric coding technology were introduced on certain HP Indigo press models. The former is an ink that fluoresces under UV light and the latter generates graphic representations of digits or numbers that can be placed as a visual element on a page.

Xerox Corp.’s InfraredMark Specialty Imaging Font technology produces text that becomes readible when exposed to infrared light. It uses two matched sets of CMYK toners that have very different infrared light absorption properties. One is used to print a color background and the other to print text within it.

The concept of lenticular printing, likewise, isn’t new, but it is enjoying a bit of a rebirth thanks largely to HumanEyes Technologies. The company has introduced new software tools that make it easier and less costly to create the artwork needed for lenticular printing. It has also been signing up a growing list of vendor partners to help drive the market, including the likes of Eastman Kodak, HP, KBA North America, Fujifilm Graphic Systems and Inca Digital.

The term lenticular is somewhat inaccurately being applied to all printing processes in which multiple images are interlaced to create a 3D appearance or motion effect. These composite images can either be printed directly on the required lens material, typically with UV inks, or output on a substrate that is then affixed to it. Solutions are available for production on digital and offset presses, as well as rollfed or flatbed large-format printers.

Franklin Park, IL-based Tukaiz, which defines itself as a marketing communications services production company, has already been a player in this market for a while. Its capabilities include offset, digital and large-format ink-jet printing, all of which can produce lenticular work. The company offered that service to customers even before bringing production completely in-house, first with a HumanEyes license for offset production and then licenses for digital (HP Indigo press ws2000) and large-format (Fujifilm Acuity HD 2504 flatbed ink-jet) printing.

Lots of Lenticular

Its list of lenticular jobs produced to date includes postcards, coasters for a liquor distributor, covers for a comic book, business cards, invitations and floor displays, reports Matthew Giandonato, digital print supervisor. He notes that both of the shop’s digital platforms enable shorter run production, but also are valuable tools for hardcopy proofing of longer runs produced via UV litho printing.

Giandonato says there is a minimal learning curve with the lenticular software, and press operators (digital and offset) will need a little practice to get the printing to align correctly with the lens substrate.

In light of the latest advances, he believes there is a need to educate the market about the current cost structure for lenticular work and the ability to produce shorter runs. The upfront expense and effort required just to create print-ready artwork in the past had been a barrier to the use of lenticular printing, he asserts.

“There’s a lot more buzz in the market (about lenticular),” Giandonato says. “Clients are just starting to see what we can do with this technology, and there are a lot of applications still to be developed.”

Converting potential into actual business will take work with each of these technologies, and even then there will be no guarantees. It is a big step that can be derailed by unforeseen technology and demand issues. But having a healthy skepticism about the hype shouldn’t mean never taking a calculated risk, since there are advantages in pioneering a new market. PI


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