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Printed Electronics: Growth boost for the packaging industry

  • Printed electronics are actually printed electronic components, more recently also as complex digital applications.
  • BIn this printing method, electrically conductive thick or thin materials are printed layer by layer as circuits on a carrier medium - instead of ink.
  • Thanks to state-of-the-art digital printing systems, it is becoming increasingly cost-effective and opens up a wide range of new applications.
  • Possible features include imprinted displays, speakers, ID tags and even mini solar systems and batteries.



 

Packaging must be able to do many things. With Printed Electronics, there is even more to come. This makes both packaging and labels actually smart. This not only opens up completely new application possibilities from marketing to communication, but also contributes significantly to the growth of the intelligent and sustainable packaging market.

Although the packaging market has been on the upswing for years, it has only grown on a fairly flat curve. Even the pandemic, according to previous studies, will “only” cause a global growth of 9.2 per cent in the best case. One important reason for this is that the packaging industry has reached a point where hardly any profound progress is possible using classic methods.

However, customers have been used to more and more functionality and variability from other areas for years. Added to this is the proliferation of countless smart technologies. Both of these factors are leading to rising expectations.

Printed (semiconductive) electronics represent a revolutionary liberation strike in this sense. It enables the possibility to make packaging extremely functional at constantly decreasing additional costs and thus giving it a new added value. When used correctly, it also ensures more durable packaging. This helps to tackle the problem of packaging waste at its roots - where the packaging can do more thanks to Printed Electronics, there is significantly more incentive to use it for longer.

 

Print electronics: Trend-setting and yet technically established

The starting material for this exciting form of printing is so-called organic electronics. However, these are not “organic” materials in the sense of being of biological origin, but macromolecules based on electrically conductive polymers – i.e. special synthetic molecules.

These are available in paste or liquid form.Once a use has been defined and its circuits created in a digital model, the further procedure is similar to printing with colours: The molecules are applied with printing machines. The choice of the printing method depends on the desired result:

 
  • Flexography
  • Offset printing
  • Siebdruck
  • Screen printing
  • Pad printing or
  • Ink/-or Inkjet printing


can and will be used. And, depending on the application, even more, exotic printing processes. Only laser printing processes are currently (still) rules out as a possibility for producing printed semiconductor components.

The beginning of printed electronics

The first patent for printed circuits was granted as early as 1903. And as early as 1936, the first (very simple) conductor tracks were used in the industrial production of radios.

It was not until 1986, however, that an organic field-effect transistor (OFET) was printed for the first time. This provided the basis for printing truly complex digital applications.
The only thing that really distinguishes electronic printing from colour printing is the resolution. It is significantly higher for printed electronics because the limit here is not the resolving power of the human eye, but the necessity of electronic functionality. Therefore, although the printing methods are the same, machines designed solely for colour printing cannot be used as a foundation. This only works if they can handle the necessary resolutions.

But if the needs are met, there are hardly any limits to the possibilities. Also because the electronics are not printed two-dimensionally, but in layers on top of each other just like with print jobs, countless products can be created:
 
  • OLED-Displays, even with touch, function
  • Sensors of various types
  • E-Ink-Displays
  • Speakers
  • LED-based lighting elements

In 2011, the TU Chemnitz even succeeded in producing solar cells printed on paper. And the Fraunhofer Institute reports that its printed batteries have a power density of about 2 milliampere-hours per square centimetre - with a material thickness of less than one millimetre.

It takes only little imagination to imagine the gigantic variety of possibilities that are offered here. In practice, some concrete and useful application scenarios are already emerging ab.




 

Highlights: Spectacular promotion with OLEDs

Nowadays, it is possible to make a package with brand lettering attractive not only through colours but by literally making it shine. Just a few years ago, this would have been an exciting vision of the future. Since 2017, it has been a practical reality.

Coca-Cola developed an innovative bottle label in collaboration with two German companies: The world-famous lettering not only appears in classic white but also shines brightly after a finger presses on a play button. This made the Coke bottle the star and winner of the 2018 German Innovation Awards - thanks to printed OLEDs.

However, it did not stop at this experiment: At the end of 2019, to coincide with the release of the new Star Wars movie "The Rise of Skywalker," Coca-Cola released a special series of its bottles. On it: the two main characters with their lightsabers. Even science fiction laymen should be able to imagine the detail that was given a gigantic advertising effect by printed OLEDs. Enthusiasm broke out not only amongst fans of the film series but the entire Internet and the packaging and advertising industry were highly excited.

Since OLEDs can also be printed on other products in a limitless variety, the possible application scenarios are huge. It is to be expected that more companies will achieve spectacular effects with such “Highlights” in the near future.

 

Maximum control through sensors

For countless packaging, the quality of their contents depends on the storage conditions. Not least in the case of medical products, the condition of the contents can also be a vital criterion.

Thanks to printed electronics, another field is opening here - one that does not just rely on effects. This is because it is easily possible to print sensors that measure temperature and humidity, for example. This way, a package can permanently monitor its contents precisely. With further printed components, it is even possible to determine realistic, individualised expiry dates - and to display them constantly updated.

This application also goes beyond the purely qualitative benefit. Where such simple monitoring of the actual state is possible, the need to dispose of products simply because they have exceeded their expiry date is reduced - a circumstance that has been contributing to the enormous consumption of resources for decades.

Application range of the printed sensors

The possibilities of the sensors that can currently be realised range from measuring gas to humidity, temperature, light, pressure, voltage, force and acceleration to specific biological characteristics - e.g. glucose levels.

Printed sensors for measuring humidity and temperature, have by far the greatest growth potential, as there are a particularly large number of possible applications for these sensors. Source: IDTechEx
 

Forgery-proof authenticity seals

In 2019, the OECD reported that 3.3 per cent of all products traded worldwide are counterfeits – and the trend is rising. The monetary amage caused by this alone has exceeded the threshold of 300 billion US dollars for a long time. The counterfeits are steadily reaching higher standards. Although the manufacturers are fighting against this with various means, it remains a Sisyphean task.

Printed electronics could bring a significant improvement for this. So-called NFC tags can be printed at a low cost and used for counterfeit protection. For example, they can be hidden invisibly under a layer of paint. Together with suitable digital security features, this also effectively prevents counterfeiters from integrating their own printed tags.


When packaging communicates with customers

For some products, it is particularly important that various information on them is readily available to the consumer - e.g. medicine. If, for example, information on the exact application and dosage is difficult to find or is only available in handwritten form, this can lead to incorrect medication.

Here, too, printed electronics offer decisive improvements. Corresponding sensors can, for example, register how many times a pharmaceutical package has been opened – and thus inform whether the daily dose has been reached. Various electronic applications printed on the packaging can also be combined here:

 
  • A printed e-ink display on the outside provides regular information about the doctor’s individual intake instructions.
  • A printed NFC tag can send similar information to a mobile phone - e.g. to a health app.
  • A sensor measures whether the medication in the pack can still be taken.
  • An OLED panel can convey simple messages by lighting up in different colours.

These applications are not limited to the pharmaceutical sector but can be applied to virtually any printed product.

The printing and packaging industry is facing a very exciting and innovative future within the next few years. Printed electronics is currently only just beginning to unfold its gigantic potential. It is imaginable that in just a few years there will be countless products in every supermarket whose imprint is not only colourful in one way or another but actually smart.

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