Xerox on Tuesday announced a new silver ink (among other things) that it's calling, and apparently is, a breakthrough in printable electronics, a leading edge concept that's generated a lot of discussion but few actual products to date, largely because of the issues that Xerox's new technology addresses.
In concept, printable electronics is just what it sounds like: using a printer, basically an ink jet, to print electronic circuits. If you can do that reliably, you can print electronic devices for far less than current methods cost. You can also print the devices on a variety of new materials.
The possibilities range from printing on flexible plastic (opening the door to displays you can roll up and put your briefcase), to paper and cardboard (for packaging that can give audio and video instructions for assembling a product, actively remind you to take your medicine, or confirm whether you already took it), to fabric (which will allow wearable electronics -- a T-shirt with a display, say, replacing a printed slogan for marketing or for showing support for a political candidate.)
Until now the concept of printable electronics has been more promise than reality. One of the few actual applications has been printing antennas for RFID tags (the technology EZ-Pass or FastPass uses to charge passing cars tolls without forcing them to stop). . Those who keep an eye on the area have been predicting that the ability to print the entire RFID tag, instead of just the antenna (and print it cheaply enough), is the point where printable electronics will begin to take off.
As just one example of the possibilities, if you can print the RFID on packaging as easily as printing a bar code -- right along the text and graphics, you can replace bar codes with RFID tags on every box of cereal, every frozen food package, and every can in a supermarket. Do that, and going through the checkout counter becomes a simple matter of walking past an RFID reader to register everything in your cart.
The big hurdle for printable electronics has been finding a practical (as well as economical) way to implement it. Given the goal of being able to print on everything from paper, to cardboard, to plastic, one of the big problems has been that the temperature needed to melt silver ink for printing -- the conductor you need in electronics -- tends to be too high for the materials you want to print on. Plastic, for example, tends to melt when it gets too hot.
According to Xerox one of the key benefits of its technology is that it can print with sliver ink at a much lower temperature than competing technologies, which makes it much easier for the materials it's printing on to survive.
Another important benefit is that it can print reliable circuits in non-clean room environments. According to Xerox, printing with competing technologies in open air environments results in circuits that don't last long or aren't consistently reliable. However, Xerox says that its technology doesn't need a clean room any more than a standard printer needs one for putting ink or toner on paper.
In addition to eliminating the need for a clean room and making it easier to print on various materials without ruining them, the new technology also promises to lower costs dramatically -- enough to finally it make it practical to print entire RFID tags on anything. Xerox says it could bring the cost of RFID tags down from the current dollar or so each to roughly a penny each, which is to say, Xerox may have just reached the critical take off point that the industry has been looking for.
Still another important piece of the announcement is that Xerox says it will make the technology available to others. Assuming it does what Xerox is claiming, and assuming other companies agree it does what they need, this new technology may be just the breakthrough the industry needs to jump start printable electronics as a major new approach to building electronic devices.
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