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Are Printed Electronics the Future for Traditional Printers?

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Since 1999, IDTech has been providing independent market research, business intelligence and events on emerging technologies. With the goal of providing a clear view of the real situation in computer subject matters, regardless of popular misconceptions they brought together technology experts from all around the globe, to share the research, developments and future plans for their companies.

This conference focused on printed electronics, 3-d printing alongside wearable technologies, energy harvesting, the Internet-of-things. We attended this conference with the big question, “Why should printers or designers care?” Yet, attempting to answer this ultimately results in more questions. To begin, we might ponder our past.

How much did we know about the applications of digital technologies for our industries when they were in their infancy? When we moved from hot-lead typography to the Compugraphic electronic typesetting, who had a vision of a digital press? Or electronic media? Or mobile apps? We were inspired to attend this conference because they used the word “print” quite frequently, but here, they aren’t much about brochures and booklets, as they are about access to information.

Conductive inks are being developed that allow us to link print to technology in ways much more effective that a QR code. We can print circuits, sensors, batteries. We, from the “traditional” industry, already possess so much knowledge. We need to think beyond the applications we are accustom to. There will soon be an entirely new client base and opportunities we’ve yet to imagine. These inks are being printed on substrates using many processes, including gravure, flexography, screen printing, inkjet, offset lithography, slot-die coating and blade coating, among others. Each process has advantages, limitations and requirements – each requiring specific ink/coating rheology for optimum performance.

The following are two excepts from a recent white paper authored by Harper Graphic Solutions:

“One of the core promises of the developing printed-electronics market is the ability to manufacture flexible-electronics products using traditional roll-to-roll (R2R) printing processes at higher speed, ultimately creating a high-value item at a low per-item cost. Many firms and universities involved in printed electronics research are focused on improving the advanced materials for this type of application. Current research is heavily focused on ink and coating formulations, especially low-cost conductive inks (the Holy Grail of printed electronics) and substrates that are printable and do not distort during the high temperature or energy required to cure the ink.”

 “The construction of conductive pathways has evolved from wires to chemical and now to laser etching over years of improvements. Exploring non-screen printing processes is a more recent method that leverages technological advancement from centuries of graphic print manufacturing. Today’s presses and equipment have tight registration, refined impression control, high speed and unparalleled productivity. By replacing the graphic ink with conductive ink, electronic pathways can be printed at high speeds on a wide variety of substrates.”

So why not ponder this new direction for our trade? As mentioned in Packaging World:

“Printing PE is generally perceived to be not only painstakingly slow but also something that requires highly specialized equipment. Colleen Twomey, for California Polytechnic State University, again speaking at the AIPIA Congress in Chicago, showed how it will soon be possible to print conductive inks using an existing flexographic press.

“As so much packaging in the U.S. is still printed using flexographic technology it seems sensible to try to adapt these existing presses to meet new requirements. Cal Poly, in conjunction with DuPont and Clemson University, set out to discover if commercially available “print” components can successfully print electronics and, after extensive research, concluded that it could. This opens up a whole area of possibilities to utilize PE in packaging without major new investment.

“To aid further development in the whole PE area, Cal Poly just started a certificate and MS graduate degree in Printed Electronics and Functional Imaging.”


 This is new, exciting, complex technology and perhaps a new paradigm for traditional printers. Most of us are not early adopters. We need to keep our machines fed and our employees busy. It’s difficult to invest non-billable hours anywhere much less in this somewhat obscure application of technology. But it is important to keep in mind that nothing is static. Many of us have already learned this the hard way as we scrimmage to find our place in today’s connected environment. Those willing to look outside their comfort zone just might find a different bright future in our beloved industry.

We’d like to keep this conversation going. If anyone has explored this avenue and might have ideas or concerns we’d love to hear from you.

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