“Think outside the box” has become one of the most overused buzz phrases in business. When it comes to electronics, however, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Electronic circuits will soon be appearing outside their safe and secure spot hidden well inside the box—whether it be a personal computer, laptop or mobile phone. In addition to moving outside, they are shedding their rigid structure and being put into flexible forms that can roll up, bend or twist as needed. They will also be taking on a whole new spectrum of chores. Flexible, printed electronics will be showing up in everything from retail stores to medicine, solar power, lighting and entertainment.
For the past 50 years, electronic technology has focused on making things smaller and smaller, shrinking vacuum tubes measured in inches down to today’s circuits that are measured in billionths of meters, or nanometers. Electronic circuits that are printed on flexible backing will still be small, but manufacturers will be able to produce yards and yards of them at a time by printing them out in reams. That kind of technology could be used, for instance, to produce wallpaper printed with energy-efficient, organic light-emitting diodes that work as a lighting source for the room.
While they are very powerful, today’s electronic circuits are still inflexible things housed in sturdy boxes. Computer chips, for example, are built on rigid pieces of silicon. Using a flexible material rather than silicon, manufacturers could print circuits onto a variety of materials, including plastic, paper and fabric. That would bring a huge savings in manufacturing costs alone.
Copier company Xerox, for one, last year announced a new silver-based ink technology that can be used for printing electronic circuits on flexible plastic. GE has demonstrated flexible lighting made of organic light-emitting diodes that are printed onto a bendable backing. Last year, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology developed a flexible memory chip that retains data even when it’s switched off. Besides the circuitry, technology is developing that allows batteries to be printed onto flexible materials. Printing methods vary from ink-jet to the roll-to-roll process used for newspapers. In fact, most current printing processes could be adapted to print out electronics.
The development of flexible printed circuits could lead to a variety of new products, such as roll-up computer displays, flexible electronic newspapers and biosensors. Cosmetic patches with both circuits and batteries printed on them could be used for timed delivery of skin or other treatments.
In retail, one of the first uses may be for flexible RFID (radio frequency identification) printed right onto the packaging. RFID tags, now made with silicon, are already widely used in applications such as for paying highway and bridge tolls without stopping at the toll booth. With RFID tags printed onto packaging, the milk carton, cereal box, coffee can and chocolate bar could, in effect, tell the cash register how much they cost without anyone having to lift them out of the grocery cart.
For medicine, printed electronics could be used on bandages to help monitor a patient’s vital signs, replacing a tangle of other devices now wired to patients, or to deliver drugs on a certain schedule or as other so-called “bio-sensors.” A cholesterol sensor, for example, being developed at Dublin City University in Ireland could produce a reading from a drop of blood, display the results on a little screen, and, connected to a cell phone, send the results to a doctor.
Electronics printed on flexible backings also hold promise for home entertainment and would enable even larger, lighter and, hopefully, cheaper television screens—not to mention of course, wallpaper that lights up. In lighting, the technology promises highly energy efficient flat panel lights.
Solar power is another area were flexible printed circuits could soon prove advantageous, bringing sharply lower manufacturing costs and more durable solar cells. Transparent solar cells could be incorporated into windows, producing power while also letting in light.
And of course, let’s not leave out fashion—someone is bound to make clothes that compute and dresses that light up and change color. It’s just a matter of time.
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, of “2001” fame, once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Now, we’re just a short step away from the magic postcards of “Harry Potter” fame, where the people in the postcard pictures wave and talk to you.