Printed electronics pioneer Thinfim successfully squeezed shareholders for another 26.8m Norwegian Kroner yesterday, following the announcement of a real customer for its printed memory circuits.
The money was raised through a warrant issue to existing shareholders; despite its current size of around 20 people Thinfim is publicly listed. The little firm has been making great strides in printing rewritable memory and combining it with printed transistors from PARC to create electronics as cheap as the plastic to which they are attached.
Ongoing work involves temperature monitoring, recording the temperature when it dips below or above a preset level, such things being important in food safety. Thinfim is also working on a printed clock which would allow recordings to be made at regular intervals: but the customer announced last week is more interested in the uniqueness of printed memory and plans to use it to label genuine packaging to prevent counterfeiting.
The problem with printed electronics, beyond the immediate problem of laying down components with a printing machine, is interfacing with the rest of the - unprinted - world. Thinfilm addresses some of that by using as many printed components as possible: battery, screen, memory and transistors are all created using fast printing techniques (though quite possibly onto different substrate materials) then laminated together. Eventually though, one has to interface with the rest of the world, as this work-friendly (silent) video demonstrates:
Right now that's done using physical connections, pads onto which a reader can be touched. That's fine for protecting high-value products such as drugs or designer labels, but less good for ensuring the chicken wasn't thawed in transit. Having said that, we're told that crates of cantaloupes are already routinely accompanied by a $12 disposable monitor (non-Thinfilm) which records transit temperatures and also requires a contact plate for reading, so the market is ready for a cheaper alternative.
The future is obviously radio, perhaps modified RFID or something akin to Kovio's NFC Barcodes, but not any of the existing standards as Thinfilm reckons they're all tricky to integrate into printed systems. Kovio's solution is printed, but using bubble-jets onto a steel substrate which is then baked at high temperature, which is just as difficult to integrate with Thinfilm's tech as traditional electronics.
Thinfilm's circuits only have 20 bits of memory right now, though the company hopes to increase that to a hundred bits eventually - more than enough to record historical temperatures or product codes, and more than enough to making reading them the most important challenge remaining. ®