Printing was once confined to using either a printing press to print words in ink onto paper for books, posters, leaflets and other reading material or to reproduce printed versions of documents typed on a computer and sent electronically to an office printer and copier.
Printing technology has been forging ahead rapidly and developments will soon make it possible to manufacture all sorts of sophisticated, smaller and cheaper electronic and communication products.
Imagine, for example, an “intelligent” pill box that can keep track electronically of how much medication a patient has taken or even textiles that can detect the temperature and adjust a heating system accordingly.
Although it sounds like science fiction the technology for the components for such articles has already been developed and is now being refined for a greater range of uses.
Much of our modern equipment, such as computers, mobile phones, or the electrics in cars, has historically used circuit boards that consist of metal channels using fine wires embedded on a surface called a substrate.
The two things that make circuit boards usable for a wider range of applications are the ability to to print onto a very thin flexible surface, such as sheets of plastic or polyester film or even fabric and the availability of a metallic ink that is capable of conducting electrical signals and can be reliably used in printing.
In 2009 a well-known manufacturer of printers and copiers announced that it had successfully developed a low temperature silver ink that could do the job.
According to the website Wikipedia silver inks for flexible circuitry have multiple uses today including printing radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags used in modern transit tickets and can be used to repair circuits on printed circuit boards.
Computer keyboards have membranes also using printed circuits that sense when a key is pressed and the defrosters in car windscreens use printed circuitry applied to the glass.
The market for flexible, printed circuit boards is being predicted to be worth more than $16 billion by the year 2015. The main demand at the moment has been identified as coming from industries including defence and aerospace, telecommunications, automotive and industrial markets and most strongly from the Asia-Pacific region.
A company in the USA already supplies a kit that engineers can use to create functional electrical circuits with a thermal inkjet desktop printer. The kit includes the substrate made of treated polyester (the material to be printed on), a thermal inkjet printer, a cartridge filled with conductive ink and the maintenance kit and manual.
Eventually, as the new printing technology develops even more it will become possible to produce very much smaller, lighter and cheaper gadgets like games consoles, mobile phones, small cameras or even flexible computer screens thin enough to be rolled up for carrying. Already it is possible to make tiny, printed batteries.
Although this sort of printing technology is mainly of use to manufacturers of products, as it is continually refined and becomes more widely available, one could imagine it findingits way into office printing and copying equipment too.
There may come a time when printed flexible circuitry will make even these office machines considerably lighter and less bulky because it allows for machines that are considerably less bulky.
Copyright (c) 2010 Alison Withers