Printable electronics: How Canada could make packaging that interacts with your smartphone

When making the packaging that contains drugs that people rely on for their health, James Lee, the director of technology and innovation at Jones Packaging, always has safety at the top of his mind, and that guides his design.

Today, that means using a child-proof lid that prevents minors from taking potentially harmful pharmaceuticals. But Lee thinks it could take another, even more useful form in the near future. He imagines a sensor embedded into the packaging that would detect if a drug or vaccine is kept at the appropriate temperature to ensure that it doesn’t spoil. If it does, it could send a warning to the person that needs to take it.

It’s possible with one of the latest trends encompassed by the Internet of Things – printable electronics. It’s a process by which basic electronic circuitry is applied to materials using traditional print processes. Applied to packaging, that could enable some basic on-board functionality and even communication with other devices.

“There’s a possibility that our package could have an IP address and it could have a data point in a web of analytics,” Lee says. “Can a package be a data collection tool? Can a package activate your smartphone? These are the types of things we’re thinking a package could do to be more functional.”

It’s also the type of things that the Canadian Printable Electronics Industry Association (CPEIA) is interested in seeing happen with a solidified Canadian supply chain. Founded last year and going public in November at the Printed Electronics USA conference, CPEIA is seeking to bring together industry players, academic researchers, government organizations and eventually the business users of printable electronics solutions into a single group. Supported in motive by the National Research Council, the association has now grown to include more than 40 members, including Jones Packaging.

For executive director Peter Kallai, the organization’s goal is clear – bring together the right partners that need to work together in order for commercially viable solutions to be created. It’s also about education.

“At the moment, most people don’t know about printable electronics, just like people didn’t know about transistors at one point,” he says. “We have a lot less expensive manufacturing techniques and much higher volume techniques, but we’re not pursuing the same type of intensive computing.”

No one affiliated with CPEIA would suggest that the organic materials used in printable electronics could come anywhere close to matching the computing power or memory storage of silicon. But thanks to another trend that’s already more mature – namely the rapid adoption of smartphones among Canadians – any computing power required for a solution can be offloaded to a personal device such as an iPhone.

Some basic circuitry has been put to use without a companion device to aid it, such as the packaging used for Bombay Sapphire. The gin is commonly seen by Canadians browsing duty free stores at airports, and it uses printed circuitry to light up a pattern on the packaging and serve as an eye-catching method to draw in shoppers.

But Lee imagines some more comprehensive approaches to printable electronics.

“When I got into a store and I’m looking at something, I’ve got my phone in hand I’m looking up prices and reviews,” he says. “How can we make that more interactive? If we can increase interactivity, then maybe we can sell more units. That has a trickle down effect to us.”

Lee gives the example of another application in the market today – Touchcode. Using a special capacitive layer, a special conductive ink can be placed on packaging that encourages users to touch the screen of their smartphone to trigger an event.

“The ink has a unique bar code pattern that the smartphone can detect with it’s touching it,” he says. “You can do it through a custom app or a web app.”

Before Canada’s printable electronics supply chain gets to the point where it’s churning out solutions like this, Kallai and his association have some work to do. But it’s not wasting any time. This week, it announced a memorandum of understanding with the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, agreeing to explore opportunities with printable electronics. That adds to the Continental Automated Buildings Association agreement signed in January.

Support from the NRC comes in the form of access to its resources in the printable electronics research and development program that it is running. Kallai says NRC has provided CPEIA with access to technical expertise and allowed it to show off its facilities to association members.

CPEIA has also organized a symposium event in Montreal for April 21-22, featuring a keynote from Parc, the Xerox R&D centre that has explored printable electronics for some time. The NRC is also a silver sponsor.

A year from now “the audience will know how to spell printable electronics and they will be more interested in working with this technology,” Kallai says. “I’d like to see an organization with 120 members, and 10 per cent being end-users that want to work with us.”

There’s already one end-user that’s been drawn to the association and what it might be able to accomplish – the Bank of Canada. “They think printable electronics can bring something to the paper currency we use,” Kallai says.

We don’t know what that will be at this point, but it’s probably not going to be a $20 bill a light-up pattern around the Queen’s likeness.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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