Living smarter with printed electronics

From solar cells that adorn the roofs and facades of buildings, to skis with integrated sensors, to new light therapies for combating jaundice in babies—these innovations can only be realized with printed electronics. The reason: Only circuits, sensors and other electronic components from a printer are light, thin and cost-efficient enough to manufacture that they can be unobtrusively integrated into different products.

Smart living technologies with printed electronics are already helping little ones who have just glimpsed the light of the world for the first time. For example, Dutch company Bilihome will be showcasing a vest for babies with jaundice in LOPEC’s Innovation Showcase. More than half of all newborns suffer from this liver disruption. In most cases, the jaundice subsides on its own, but sometimes phototherapy is needed to prevent severe brain damage. The vest with printed electronics and integrated LEDs enables blue-light therapy that doesn’t restrict the baby and is even suitable for babies born prematurely. With traditional light therapy, babies have to be blindfolded so as not to damage their retinas.

Researchers from the Dutch Holst Centre, meanwhile, have developed an ultra-thin mat with printed sensors that records a person’s posture, breathing and heart rate. Placed under a bed sheet, for example, it makes it possible to monitor sleeping babies or people with sleep apnea. The Holst Centre is traditionally represented at LOPEC and this year will offer a Short Course as part of the LOPEC conference.

Printed sensors for monitoring bodily functions are also inside the COVID-19 patch from LOPEC exhibitors Henkel and Quad Industries. The patch records the vital signs such as breathing, heart rate and body temperature of coronavirus patients and transmits them to a cloud. Medical staff can therefore avoid direct points of contact with the infected person while still keeping an eye on their health status.

Smart skis and e-textiles

Sensor technology for health monitoring is also being integrated into clothing, for example in shirts for athletes. There is also an ever increasing presence of printed electronics in the leisure sector. Among the most recent product developments are skis with integrated sensors conceived by Atomic, the Austrian manufacturer of sporting goods for skiing, together with scientists from research company Joanneum Research from Graz. These printed sensors and other flexible electronics components such as batteries and solar cells are laminated on the skis. The sensor system has already proven its resilience under real conditions. Despite the cold, snow and wind, it worked reliably and enabled online measurements of the ski’s deformation. The skis can be seen in the LOPEC Innovation Showcase.

But skiing isn’t the first application of printed electronics in winter sports. Jackets with printed wafer-thin heating elements celebrated their premiere at the 2018 Winter Olympics. The fashion company Ralph Lauren equipped the U.S. team with these. “Fashion and textile designers are excited by printed electronics because they expand their design options enormously,” emphasizes Klaus Hecker, CEO of the Industry association and LOPEC co-host OE-A (Organic and Printed Electronics Association). Smart textiles can not only provide heat, they can also light up and twinkle. The “Intelligent textiles” session will provide an overview of the trends in this area, and will take place as part of LOPEC’s Technical Conference on March 24. Among the speakers is designer Madison Maxey, founder of the U.S. company Loomia. Maxey, who was on business magazine Forbes’ “30 under 30” list in 2016, is developing electronic textiles for various purposes and is cooperating with companies such as Adidas, Google and North Face.

Intelligent building technology

The applications of printed electronics are conquering the mass market and are currently proving their reliability by helping in the management of the coronavirus pandemic. This is demonstrated not only by the aforementioned COVID-19 patches, but also by smart foot mats from Heidelberg-based LOPEC exhibitor InnovationLab. They are helping retailers to control distancing. Equipped with a counting system, they can specify how many people there are in a shop. Thanks to the more than 8,000 embedded individual sensors, the mat can differentiate between human steps and shopping cart wheels. “In some ways, the threat of COVID-19 has given a boost to printed electronics, but the innovations are relevant well beyond the pandemic response,” says OE-A CEO Klaus Hecker. For example, in the event of a building fire, the smart foot mats can quickly check if everyone has left the room. Museums, meanwhile, can use them to determine where there are still visitors before closing.

Printed electronics also increase the sustainability and energy efficiency of buildings. The affixable solar sheets from Dresden-based LOPEC exhibitor Heliatek are turning nearly every building into producers of green energy. Due to their flexibility and light weight, they are suitable for curved roofs and facades as well as for buildings with weak structural analysis. Heliatek is printing the solar sheets using the roll-to-roll process and last year celebrated the official start of commercial production.

Likewise, there is much that printed electronics can offer indoors. One example is the extraordinary lighting concept by Hechingen-based LOPEC exhibitor Lumitronix. The manufacturer of LED technology is printing large paper sheets with conductive structures and equipping them with small LEDs. The luminous wallpapers produced using the roll-to-roll process are available in lengths of up to 100 meters. The option to integrate additional sensors to measure temperature, humidity and other parameters makes the luminous paper a truly smart solution.

In addition to these and many other products that are already commercially available or are close to market readiness, LOPEC will showcase printing and carrier materials as well as systems for realizing smart living technologies. “With the combination of exhibition and conference, we are covering the entire value chain of printed electronics from production to application,” says LOPEC Exhibition Director Armin Wittmann. LOPEC is aimed at representatives from all kinds of industries who want to make their business fit for the future. Because one thing is for certain: In tomorrow’s digitalized, networked world, there is no getting by without printed electronics.