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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Printing Electronic Circuits on Fabric

When I first read the article “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric” (https://phys.org, 11/08/2017), all I could think about was growing up watching James Bond. I have begun to wrap my brain around 3D printing, knowing that some people are already printing food and body parts with a greater or lesser degree of success. I also know that the definition of custom printing has expanded way beyond the realm of ink on paper or even digital toner on paper.

But learning that a process was under development to print flexible circuits directly onto fabric, such that you could become part of the Internet of Things (IoT), get medical or other feedback from your clothes (as you might from a Fitbit), or perhaps experience Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR), got me thinking about how everything is now connected and everything is digital. It was like a virtual Zen moment.

The Article About Printing Electronic Circuits on Fabric

Here’s the gist of the article:

“Researchers have successfully incorporated washable, stretchable and breathable electronic circuits into fabric, opening up new possibilities for smart textiles and wearable electronics” (from “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric”).

The process uses inkjet technology and environmentally friendly ink. To this process, researchers at the University of Cambridge along with colleagues in China and Italy have added graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon that can be printed directly onto the fabric to create integrated circuits that will withstand up to twenty wash cycles.

What makes this intriguing is that “The versatility of this process allowed the researchers to design not only single transistors but all-printed integrated electronic circuits combining active and passive components” (according to the article, “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric”).

Up until this development, adding electronic circuits to clothing has been problematic. The circuits were rigid structures (with components mounted on rubber or plastic) that were uncomfortable to wear and that were destroyed by washing. In addition, the inks used in prior fabric printing of electronics had included toxic solvents, whereas the researchers at the University of Cambridge (and their colleagues in China and Italy) have been able to base their inks on non-toxic chemicals.

The article quotes Professor Roman Sordan of Politecnico di Milano, saying that although researchers had developed relatively simple integrated circuits, this “process is scalable and there are no fundamental obstacles to the technological development of wearable electronic devices both in terms of their complexity and performance.”

These integrated circuits operate on low power, are flexible, and can be washed. All of these characteristics set this generation of fabric printed electronics apart from its predecessors.

The Applications for Such Technology

The article, “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric,” goes on to list the kinds of potential uses for this fabric printed electronics technology. These include:

  1. Medical Devices. The electronic circuits could monitor the wearer’s vital signs and provide feedback. This could be similar to wrist watch-like devices, such as the Fitbit, that monitor heart rate, calories burned, steps walked, duration of the exercise routine, etc.
  2. Energy Harvesting. Presumably you could capture solar energy and then store it using such a device. This might be similar to the solar panels attached to some laptop carrying cases, but the flexible circuitry would be incorporated into garments that could be comfortably worn.
  3. Military Uniforms. Presumably the technology could incorporate communications or virtual reality capabilities to augment the soldier’s awareness and information processing abilities, or even facilitate communication.
  4. The Internet of Things. Garments could communicate with other digitally enhanced items, providing data to other items or to the wearer by establishing a vast communications grid.

But What Does This Mean for You As a Commercial Printing Buyer

This is a step into the future. We’re no longer in Kansas. Presumably, future iterations of this custom printing process will tolerate more than twenty wash cycles, improving their longevity. But for now this means that things will be connected and will communicate just as people do.

For a savvy print buyer, it is wise to expand the definition of custom printing. Just as 3D printing uses a three dimensional rather than two dimensional grid to produce an object rather than a brochure or flyer by using a process similar to inkjet printing, the graphene-printing process also depends on inkjet printing technology for its success.

In addition, you could even draw an analogy between the functional or industrial printing realm that has been a growth industry of late and the commercial printing of integrated electronic circuitry on fabric. In both cases, you are using printing as a functional component of a usable item. You’re not producing a promotional or educational product. You’re making something in which the printing component has a functional use–just like a stop sign or the printing on the keys of your computer.

From the point of view of a designer, this means that there is room for explosive growth in designing items that depend on both their functionality and their aesthetics. Apple’s iPad and other products exemplify this mindset, as does the OXO Good Grips line of kitchen tools. All of these are successful because they are visually appealing, they feel good in the hand, and they do something useful both intuitively and well. Design is baked into the product. It is an essential component.

Regarding the future of wearable integrated circuits, think about Google Glasses. Glasses have already been developed for commercial use that provide augmented reality information to the wearer, enhancing his or her sensory awareness while providing useful information. I think that successfully (and comfortably) incorporating integrated circuitry into garments will play a similar role.

Finally, this means that a successful designer will need to develop multiple skills. I think it won’t be enough to just design print books and brochures for commercial printing. Already the designers in the highest demand can craft (for instance) a multi-channel promotional campaign that links a billboard to a website through a QR code and your cell phone camera (or through NFC, near-field communications). Adding 3D additive manufacturing to the mix along with wearable electronics that link to other objects and provide useful information will be a growth industry that will still depend on effective design and marketing skills.

There will still be the need to persuade, educate, and communicate through visual media using design skills and aesthetic awareness. In fact, I think the need for these skills will increase rather than decrease.

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