The idea of creating 3D objects like guns or toys with a relatively standard printer is just getting off the ground. Now a consortium of Canadian organizations is looking into using a printer to create electronic circuits that could be slapped on any product for an instant short-range wireless or Internet connection.

It’s next-generation RFID, the silicon-based wireless tags used for tracking already on a wide range of consumer goods or corporate inventory. But printable electronics would, hopefully, greatly lower the cost and generate big data.

The consortium has already been working for a year, but on Monday the federal government announced that the National Research Council is putting in $40 million over five years.

“There are tremendous opportunities at this early stage of development for Canada to take a lead globally,” Thomas Ducellier, executive director of the NRC’s printable electronics program, said in an interview.

Think, for example, of smart labels on boxes that lower shipping costs through wireless supply chain management, boxes of drugs that have the ability to track the number of doses a patient has taken, anti-counterfeiting measures on currency or printed RFID antennas.

The consortium includes the Canadian research arm of one of the biggest names in printing, Xerox; RFID Canada, an Ontario manufacturer of RFID and near field communications (NFC) tags; GGI International, a Quebec maker of touch-sensitive interfaces for a variety of machines; Krupack Packaging, a B.C. producer of a wired range of boxes; Jones Packaging Inc. of London, Ont., which makes packaging for medical products; MW Canada, which makes window coverings; the Canadian Bank Note Co., which makes currency; and Industry Canada’s communications research centre.

Printable electronics could help enable the so-called Internet of things, Ducellier said, in which almost everything has a Web address. “What’s missing today is the ability to reach out to the objects by having a tiny bit of intelligence” on them, he said.

Many objects – vending machines, refrigerators, water meters – already can connect to the Internet through modems. What printable electronics would do is give the ability for a huge number of smaller things to do so as well at low cost. “It really is the connection of the digital and tangible world and reaching into the field of analytics.”

For example, said Paul Smith, vice-president of Xerox Canada’s research center, think of the ability to put a tag that can read a product’s temperature on a milk carton. The tag could generate data on whether (or how much) the milk’s temperature varied after it left the factory.

“It enables you to gain data at a very low cost you never been able to do before,” he said.

 

Existing RFID electronic tags are large and silicon based, he said. But the latest technology allows companies to print electronics onto flexible substrates at very low cost, perhaps even using conventional inkjet printer techniques, Smith said.

Xerox Canada hosts the company’s global research centre for designing electronic materials, he said, so printed electronics is an extension of that work. For about the last decade Xerox has been looking at printed electronics. Its role in the consortium is to supply materials like semiconductors, conductive inks or dielectrics that could be used to make printable lines that could carry signals.

“What’s fantastic about this consortium is it puts all of the players you need to make all of the materials a reality in an application area,” he said “to product what potentially could be a commercial product.”

Ducellier said the consortium has set “an ambitious goal” to print an RFID tag, including logic and memory, within five years.

But the consortium has been working quietly for the past year on shorter targets, including the ability to print an antenna. That work is finished and production will start soon.

The technology won’t replace silicon-based CPUs on computers, said Dan Wayner, the NRC’s vice-president of emerging technologies, but open new markets where the barrier to wireless tags is price. The hope is to chop existing manufacturing costs by a factor of 10.

Printable electronics will be a pervasive platform, Wayner predicted. “It’s one of the areas that we would see as moving us towards aspects of advanced manufacturing,” he said.

He also said the consortium is an example of the NRC’s new mandate to work closer with Canadian industry on firm deliverables.

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