By Michael Wagner, Engineering Manager, New Product Design, Butler Technologies, Inc
Today's consumers expect products that are fast, smart and convenient, and conductive inks are delivering on those demands.
Conductive inks are the newest advancement in Printed Electronics, that broad category of manufactured products that has long bridged the electrical circuitry gap between humans and machines. By leveraging decades of industry knowledge and recent advancements in conductive inks, today’s science of printed electronics is providing solutions that touch the daily lives of nearly all consumers. Companies that fail to satisfy these consumers are bound to lose ground to competitors who are willing to embrace new technologies.
Conductive inks reduce weight, complexity and cost
Instead of the traditional conduit of etched copper, manufacturers can employ conductive inks such as silver, carbon and other polymer thick films (PTF). Conductive inks can be printed on lighter substrates that are as diverse as polyester, polycarbonates, polyurethanes, and paper. The use of these lightweight substrates opens the door for greater creativity in product development and less complexity in production.
By reducing product complexity, companies can realize a corresponding reduction in materials, assembly and supply chain costs. Also, because conductive inks are additive in nature, manufacturers can eliminate the waste streams and associated costs that result from copper etching.
Any conductive ink limitations that do remain are being tackled by materials giants like DuPont. Fortunately for manufacturers, most gaps between conductive ink and traditional copper flex circuits will soon be a thing of the past.
The value of unseen sensors
Given the prevalence and low cost of today’s printed electronic devices, end users rarely consider the technology that makes these devices tick. For instance, few people associate the diagnostic electrocardiogram (ECG) with printed electronics. The use of conductive inks, however, has been the catalyst for replacing rigid, inconvenient electrodes with the more comfortable, inexpensive and disposable sensor pads that are in use today.
Another rapidly emerging application of ink-driven printed electronics is the broad category of wearables. Devices that use stretchable and washable inks can be heat transferred onto a garment and used to measure electrical impulses triggered by muscle movement. Wearables are already appearing in athletic and medical sectors and are quickly finding their way into other industries.
Smart Packaging is another conductive ink-based application. The embedded PFT circuitry in product packaging has greatly enhanced inventory control processes for wholesalers and retailers. Comparable label technology has even been stretched to drive creative marketing campaigns.
What’s IoT got to do with it?
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a reference to the fact that everything is, or soon will be, connected to the Internet. The industry of printed electronics is right in the middle of the IoT action. Advancements in conductive inks have ushered in a new wave of printed electronic solutions at a time when the market is hungry for new and creative applications. In fact, industry resources estimate that more than a dozen emerging applications of printed electronics are on the horizon, applications that will prove to be game changers in medical, automotive, athletic, entertainment, aerospace, textile, security and other sectors.
The long and short of it? Advances in conductive inks are giving consumers what they demand on a daily basis: fast, smart, environmentally safe and user friendly products.
Companies that are still hesitant to engage printed electronics solutions will soon find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. In addition to missing out on immediate cost savings and improved end-user experience, lagging companies will likely sacrifice customer satisfaction. In today’s competitive market, that’s just not okay.
Michael Wagner is Engineering Manager, New Product Development for Butler Technologies, Inc, located just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Butler Technologies is heavily involved in the research and development of conductive inks, flexible substrates and printed electronics design and production. Butler Technologies helps companies develop their Printed Electronic applications as well as alternatives to traditional circuitry for medical diagnostics, automotive instrumentation, safety applications, textiles and a number of other industry sectors. Contact Michael Wagner.