So far, smart features such as lighting, communication tags, temperature sensors and tamper-proof systems have been developed and commercialized but they are mostly used for luxury products, high added value goods and small series. Why? Because their manufacturing and integration costs remain too high to become economical for billions of goods and disposable packages. Printing technologies have a great potential to manufacture these smarts features on flexibles substrates, in large series and at low cost.
Technological limitations still remain and have delayed the true industrialization of these applications.
With this in mind, the Printability and Graphic Communications Institute in Canada (ICI) has been driving its efforts in research and development toward helping the printing industry overcome these technical challenges, develop specific know-how and industrialize the production of smart and functional printed applications. Four years ago, ICI invested in an Omet-Varyflex VF430 hybrid press with the financial support of the CFI (Canadian Foundation for Innovation) and the NRC (National Research Council Canada).
Omet, the Italian press manufacturer, showed great interest to support ICI in this acquisition and collaborated with the Institute to make some modifications on the press to fit the requirements of functional printing. This multi-processes narrow web press aims at supporting the research and development to prototype and scale-up new functional material and applications developed in academic or private laboratories or companies. In the past few years, ICI has successfully printed conductive materials and patterns for smart sensors or communicating devices on the Varyflex.
According to Omet, one of its greatest achievement is the industrialization of a fully printed 1.5 V or 3V flexible battery using flexography, screen-printing and lamination processes. Thanks to the collaborative work between ICI’s team and industrial partners from the Canadian printing industry, this low cost battery is now on the radar of big players in the flexible electronics and smart packaging market willing to find a low cost source of energy to power millions of smart applications. Results obtained from the trials on the Varyflex can be directly exploited and transferred to industrials partners that are now focusing on investing in a new printing line, manufacturing and commercializing the battery.
Thanks to greater expertise in prototyping and functional printing, ICI has developed important channels of collaboration with universities across Canada. It is, for example, involved in the U-Fame Project (6.8 millions $CA from CFI) with Polytechnique Montréal which focuses on developing, manufacturing and analyzing new printed communication devices using radiofrequency technology. ICI is also part of the NSERC Green Electronics Network ("GreEN") since the summer of 2018. In this Pan-Canadian network, 13 universities, one college, 20 researchers and more than 20 companies will collaborate to develop a new generation of printed electronics applications with more sustainable materials and manufacturing processes. With the support of its infrastructure, ICI will play a central role in assisting and training researchers and students to formulate new printable green materials to make them viable on large-scale roll-to-roll equipment.
Building on this momentum, ICI will continue to exploit and increase the potential of the Varyflex press through its partnership with OMET. Additional printing and drying units have already been added. Other technologies far from conventional printing equipment (i.e. sintering, robotics, etc.) may be also considered to increase the versatility for hybrid electronics manufacturing.
According to Omet: "There is no doubt that the Varyflex has yet a long life ahead to support innovation and lead the path to new industrial high tech printed products!"