Most ink technologies have remained largely unmodified in the recent decades. Not much has changed in the many years of applying ink on paper or film or plastic. What’s new and different, however, is conductive ink technology. By taking existing printing equipment and coupling it with the desire to solve a unique problem, conductive ink is changing the traditional role of printing and expanding its applications. Conductive ink is, therefore, an example of an ink technology that has broadened the scope of printing, paving the way for the future of what it means to “print.”
Conductive ink does exactly as it states. It is a series of printed ink applications that conducts electricity, and when applied to a substrate, enables the creation of printed electronics. These conductive inks are both industry-established and innovative at the same time because the new printed electronics technology is blurring the lines between the printing, science and entertainment industries. In addition, printed electronics have brought printers, chemists, electronics specialists, engineers and R&D experts together to achieve the common goal of moving an electrical current from “point A” to “point B.”
PRINTABLE ELECTRONICS & INK: The Now
Printable electronics can be manufactured using conductive ink and a number of different printing devices, including screen-printing, gravure, flexography, offset lithography and inkjet. Each of these printing methods provides unique capabilities in the printable electronics market in much the same way as in traditional print markets. For example, using a screen process to manufacture printed electronics allows for a dense layer of ink to be applied and is, therefore, to be used when conductive ink thickness is more important than fine detail. Benefits and primary appeal of printed electronics are their low cost on flexible substrates with the potential for customization, using current printing equipment.
Conductive ink has enabled a number of advancements in the electronics sector, thereby allowing disposable electronics to become a reality. Better production efficiencies, paired with material cost reductions and environmental advantages (due to non-etching methods of manufacturing) make conductive inks and printable electronics a viable option for many end-use applications. Huge advancements and new markets for printed electronics create the opportunity for diverse end uses such as printed electronic display signage in advertising and disposable testing equipment for the healthcare market.
A news release on April 4, 2011 confirmed that NovaCentrix, a Texas-based leader in printed electronics manufacturing technology, won the Technology of the Year competition in the Materials category recognized by The Association of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (AIMCAL). NovaCentrix was recognized for its copper-based screen ink because of the opportunity for inexpensive copper inks to decrease production costs of RFID and other related printable electronics products. NovaCentrix’s Metalon ICI-020 copper screen print ink is designed for paper and plastic substrates for the smart packaging industry and RFID applications (priced at $75/kg USD). This copper screen ink’s cost saving potential helps broaden the scope of printed electronics and perpetuate the widespread adoption of this technology. NovaCentrix also manufactures conductive inkjet inks (both copper and silver).
Other major ink manufacturers are also producing conductive inks and have been doing so for many years. Sun Chemical, for example, has been active in the printed electronics market for 50 years and its Electronic Materials Group R&D team is focused on developing new solutions for this market. Sun Chemical currently offers a range of silver, carbon and graphite conductive inks to industrial markets, and states that the company is increasing its commitment to enable further solutions for the printed electronics industry.
BARE CONDUCTIVE: The New
Bare conductive ink was conceptualized and brought to life by four postgraduate students from the Innovative Design Engineering Course at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. Their creation is innovative, non-toxic conductive ink that is the only skin-safe product of its kind available in today’s market. It is designed as a flexible conduit for small electrical signals to run across the skin safely and effectively. It has initially been used to facilitate artistic visions, but the group hopes to expand the range of use into the healthcare, sensing-electronics and educational industries.
I had the pleasure of speaking with two of the four co-founders, Matt Johnson and BiBi Nelson, about their vision and future plans for Bare Conductive inks.
“There are thousands of small problems that we have a solution for,” states Johnson. From wearable options to off-body applications, Bare Conductive ink stands alone in the market for its versatility and innovation. Painted wall switches to control lighting or disposable electronics on a business card, are within reach because of Bare Conductive inks. The team has also used the ink to print interactive posters and book covers, whereby the conductive ink prompts a reaction in the form of a light or a sound, although this is not the intended focus of their product right now.
“Although we have few quantitative measurements to confirm the production capabilities of our inks for books, magazines or product packaging, we have a great deal of qualitative and anecdotal evidence that proves the inks’ physical performance over time,” explains Johnson. “For traditional printing industry applications, we don’t consider our product just ‘conductive ink,’ but rather printing ink with increased functionality.”
Projects such as the “Humanthesizer,” in collaboration with Sony Music UK and artist Calvin Harris in 2009, demonstrate the far-reaching capabilities of this technology. This first “human synthesizer” was used to promote Harris’ new music single. Bare Conductive ink was painted on more than 15 performers’ skin, completing a connection that triggered an instrument sound to play (including piano, drums and bass). When all of the performers acted in unison, Harris’ song was achieved.
Printing is no longer just ink on paper. In this case, printing is conductive ink painted on skin to make music. The unique application and creative thinking that went into not only inventing this ink product, but also finding creative collaboration across various industries, is brilliant. In this example, the printing industry, electronics industry and entertainment industry no longer stand in silos, but are collaborators who came together to achieve a completely unique task. Watch this video for an introduction into the amazing product that is Bare Conductive Ink http://j.mp/h8IuQS.
The company is currently scaling up and is planning to have product to market by September 2011. For those who wish to buy small quantities, a 50 ml container will be priced under £30.
By expanding the horizons of what printing ink is conventionally used for (printing on paper), the industry has a completely new set of infinite possibilities that were only conceptual not that long ago. Additionally, the market for conductive inks is expanding. Ink cost and capability will continue to greatly impact the effectiveness and widespread adoption of printed electronics in consumer markets.
If all of this amazing innovation is happening now, what’s to come with conductive inks in the future? Perhaps it will be conductive ink on our clothing to quickly and easily charge our electronics? Or ink that conducts electricity to run our vehicles and make our public transit system more flexible and automated using conductive ink tracks and rails? I am keen to learn how the next stages of conductive ink technology will enable further collaboration among industries, companies and individuals and turn on the proverbial “light bulb.”