May 16th, 2013
This is an excerpt from a piece originally published in Electronic Products & Technology (EP&T Magazine).
By Jordan Wosnick, Ph.D., senior scientist, Xerox Research Centre of Canada
Rapid progress in microelectronics has led to exponential increases in computational power over the last 40 years, accompanied by comparable decreases in both the size and cost of electronic devices. This has enabled the spread of electronics and computer technology – once the sole domain of scientists, engineers, and dedicated hobbyists – into every corner of our lives.
Much of this change has been fuelled by intense R&D in the electronics industry, resulting in the evolution of chip designs with ever-increasing technical sophistication. However, despite these advances, the basic process used in chip manufacture remains the same: deposition of materials onto rigid, highly pure substrates, followed by masking and etching steps, with the whole cycle repeated as needed. Although highly effective for the production of sophisticated electronic architectures, this process has a very high capital requirement, and its batch-based workflow limits the amount of customization that can be introduced at the fabrication level.
Progress in electronics has also played a large role in driving changes in the way documents are printed. The same revolution in office and home printing that turned inkjet and laser printers into common household items has taken root in the world of commercial printing, where the plate-based lithographic printing processes first developed centuries ago are increasingly being replaced by digital technologies that deposit ink on paper (or other substrates) without a plate, under the control of systems that ensure consistently high resolution and colour accuracy.
Printing know-how turned toward electronics industry
The marking materials used in these printers are themselves the products of many years of materials chemistry R&D, which has led to inks and toners with highly controlled particle sizes, shapes, and surface features. This know-how is now being turned back toward the electronics industry, providing opportunities for electronics fabrication that circumvent some of the limitations of current techniques.
Relative to the traditional process, printing electronics provides a manufacturing method with lower capital costs, fewer steps, and the ability to work under ambient conditions. Conductive and semi-conductive materials can be formulated into inks, which are then printed via inkjet directly onto substrates (which need not be rigid) without masking or etching. While best suited for low-end, disposable electronic devices, printing electronics enables a degree of flexibility and customization not yet available in traditional fabrication.