Emerging Printing Technologies — Business Lines Are Forming

“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 www.nanomarkets.net. 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.

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