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Article first appeared in QuickPrinting magazine April 2014
Written by Jeffrey Steele

There is considerable talk these days about the promise of functional printing, an evolving technology that carries the potential to enable what one report calls “the next wave in high-volume electronic production.”

Representing the melding of several industrial sectors, including printing, materials, and electronics, functional printing has spurred involvement by some of the leading companies in the world, including Eastman Kodak (see photos), BASF SE, DuPont, Toyo Ink, Haiku Tech, Avery Dennison, and Universal Display Corp., among many others.

One of the biggest players, the Functional Printing Division of Burr Ridge, IL.-based GSI Technologies, is focused on high-quality production and distribution of a broad array of active components. These include contactless card antennas, electroluminescent lamps, diagnostic and therapeutic medical electrodes, printed conductors, and smart card inlay assemblies. GSI reported its focus on custom solutions enables technical product integrators and OEMs to lower production costs, enhance performance of products, and increase profitability of their businesses.

Some prognosticators see functional printing as a market reaching $13.79 billion by 2020. Clearly, its future is exciting. What’s more, print providers have a unique opportunity to be involved in and profit from this swiftly evolving sector.

Functional characteristics

According to Shu Chang, Melbert B. Cary Jr. Distinguished Professor in the School of Media Sciences, College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology, most people are familiar with the term 3D printing, in which print technology is used to build an object that is three-dimensional in nature. This technology also is known under other names, such as additive manufacturing and solid free-form fabrication.

“Functional printing can be three-dimensional or two-dimensional,” she said. “Functional printing’s goal is to bring a functionality to what you produce. That’s why printed electronics and RFID are applications of functional printing. [Functional printing] is an umbrella term. In a way, 3D printing is functional printing, but not all 3D printing is functional.”

Functional printing can be used to produce lenticular lenses, sensors or solar cells, as well as QR codes and bar codes, Chang said.

“It could be visible or invisible, but it must have a functional characteristic to be functional printing,” she added.

Many companies are engaged in functional printing. “The field is very, very diverse,” Chang said. “It is so new that there are no real industry leaders. [The company called] 3D Systems is among the larger companies in the field.”

The Innovator’s Perspective

The field of functional printing is the focus of two groups of stakeholders, who are approaching the discipline from two different perspectives, Chang said. One group of stakeholders is comprised of engineers and innovators, while the other group is made up of digital printers.

The group consisting of engineers and innovators is probing a number of ways in which printing technology can be used as a means of producing objects. They have broken printing technology down and replaced certain aspects of the technology with different substances and approaches. For instance, using inkjet technology, they can replace the dies in inks with particles. Instead of the ink serving as the carrier for dies, it carries particles that are the building materials for objects. “The particles can be silver or copper, for instance, to make conductive tracks in printed electronics,” Chang reported.

In another approach, inkjet technology is used to jet out not inks but glues or adhesives. “They have a bed, where they put a layer of particles, then add glue to [the particles], then put down another layer of particles and add glue to that to produce an object that is three-dimensional,” she said. “In this approach, they can use plastics, ceramics, or metals.”

A third way the innovation community is using printing technology is by extruding very fine material, in much the way toothpaste might be pushed from a tube or substances from a syringe. By extruding “a fine, molten material like plastics, you can also build three-dimensional objects,” Chang explained.

“In all three examples I’ve given, digital technology is used to determine the forms these objects will take. Through functional printing, you have forms and functions. Some people call it additive manufacturing because you add materials to form the object. In traditional manufacturing, you take some of the material away through lathes or mills or cutting. You change the form of the object from one to another [by] removing materials in subtractive manufacturing.

“In additive manufacturing, you create an object from nothing to a form. In additive manufacturing, you’re adding rather than subtracting.”

The Printer’s Perspective

As noted, the printer comes at functional printing from a perspective different than that of the innovator-engineer. Reported Chang: “The printer says, ‘I know about printing. If you want to [produce] printed electronics, I can make those conductive tracks of printed electronics on flexible substrates. I can print a large format on a flexible substrate. I can do that not just with inkjet, but with the traditional print technologies like offset. The advantage is that I can go very fast, with high production levels, and print to very large substrates.’”

The flexible substrate could be used to print a large display that is hung to be seen. Flexible substrates also lend themselves to innovation, because objects are no longer limited to inflexible substrates. For example, solar cells can be printed on a flexible substrate that then can be applied to a vehicle’s curving surface to collect energy as the vehicle is driven. Antennas can be printed on flexible surfaces and used in areas where rigid antennas cannot be employed, Chang reported.

Leveraging Functional Printing

Print service providers must be involved in and communicating with the innovators and engineers, because they know “the whole system” of printing, Chang said. “There is so much we can teach the innovators and engineers,” she observes. “We know the workflow of how print goes from a concept to a product. And when [the innovators] innovate, they need to understand how to take something from a concept to a product.”

Chang foresees the evolution of functional printing unfolding in much the same way as printing in general evolved, moving from very large print houses to much smaller, more localized printing sources.

“We as print service providers need to understand what the innovators and engineers are doing, not only so we can offer our experiences to them, but also so we can innovate in the usage of functional printing.”

Chang wants PSPs to begin thinking of innovative ways of including functional printing as part of the services and solutions they provide. In short, their role should not be simply offering consultative services. Because PSPs already have the distribution channel in place, they should be assuming the role of printing functional items. Either the print service providers do it or engineering firms do it or, she argues, they do it together.

Printing companies are so creative that Chang hopes they will find creative ways of using functional printing that have not yet been envisioned. “The engineering and innovation world may not fully realize how much we know,” she said. “They may not realize this. So we really need to be in touch and communicate with them, so we can bring our added value to this field ....I want people in the print industry to become active, so we become part of this growing area. I don’t have a solution, but I know what I want to see happen.”

Is it worth the effort? Chang cites recent articles on functional printing by The Economist, the New York Times, and Forbes. “No one really knows the full potential of this technology, but there are high hopes and tremendous potential,” she said. The Economist has termed it the third industrial revolution.”