Printable electronics

Xerox silver ink is a breakthrough for printable electronics
Xerox silver ink is a breakthrough for printable electronics

Xerox announced this week they’ve developed several breakthroughs in the printing of low-cost electronic circuits. Most notably, this includes their development of a silver-based conductor ink and significant improvements to their previously-developed semi-conductor ink. These advances will make circuits possible on a wide range of materials, including plastics, film and textiles. The process is scalable so it could be used to create everything from low-cost miniature circuits to large video displays. Because the new silver ink can be delivered at sufficiently low temperatures (140°C), it won’t melt plastics, which was a previous obstacle. Finally, the process uses ink-jet technology and doesn’t require clean room facilities such as those needed for silicon chip manufacturing.

Xerox has already begun aggressively marketing the new technology which I believe will make a significant impact, both in established industries and in entirely new uses. The ability to print on fabrics should make wearable electronics really start to take off. Custom large-scale, flexible video screens and signage will become feasible. Sensors capable of detecting all manner of airborne pathogens and toxins will eventually become widespread.

Given the relatively inexpensive setup costs this will bring about in time, I’d expect a significant open source movement to build around printable electronics. Not only will this yield all sorts of innovations, but it will eventually make many consumer devices more affordable. Think RepRap for electronics.

But to me, by far and away the most exciting aspect of this breakthrough is the promise of low-cost RFID tags and sensors. Once these are in widespread use, every item in a warehouse, every book in a store, every piece of furniture in a home will be able to convey information about its location and state. Your refrigerator will be able to poll its contents, generating a shopping list or identifying items past their use-by-date. The possessions in your house could be easily inventoried and recorded for insurance purposes, in case of theft or fire. Misplaced items could be located in an instant.

In a word, everything in our environment would become more intelligent. And that’s only the beginning. Wireless communication to a central server or internet services could allow a failing device to arrange it’s own repair. (Obviously, with over-ride options by the owner.) Sensors along roads and buildings could assist in everything from collision avoidance to giving directions to tourists. Gradually, additional features and processing would be added to each device, creating an ecosystem of interacting, inter-communicating electronics.

Of course, there will no doubt be considerable privacy and security issues to contend with, not to mention all kinds of new scams involving counterfeit RFID tags, false information, misdirection and so forth. But to be honest, I don’t see us foregoing the functional and marketable benefits because of such concerns. We’ll just have to build methods and measures and legislation to deal with the possible downsides of the technology. Because in the end, smarter really is better.