MicroTech 2003 is coming up November 10-12 in Swansea, Wales (home of Catherine Zeta-Jones, for those of you Hollywood-trivia buffs). The conference, sponsored by Technical Association for the Graphic Arts (TAGA), is focused on new applications for commercial printing and graphic arts technologies in fast growing markets outside traditional commercial printing. Presentations will address a wide range of technology:

  • Printed transistors using modified commercial printing techniques: the creation of integrated circuits and computer processors for applications ranging from novelty electronics to disposable computers
  • Printed displays: monochrome, color, and full-color displays on flexible substrates
  • Biomedical and sensor application of printed electronics and printed displays
  • Conductive inks, light emitting materials, and other substrates
  • Printing for micro-manufacture

While a late fall trip to Wales may not have been in your plans, you might want to take a closer look at applications outside of ink on paper and other common substrates.

Dr. William J. Ray, PhD, President of TAGA and President of Group InfoTech and Gail Nickel-Kailing, WhatTheyThink.com correspondent, discuss the fact, fiction, and fantasy of the “science” of printing.

WTT: MicroTech 2003’s concentration on printed circuitry and transistors, printable displays, RFID, sensors, IMD, printing for micro-manufacture … all sounds a little removed from real life for WhatTheyThink readers. Could you bring this home to our audience and tell us “what’s in it for them?”

WJR: One of the things that concern me, as president of TAGA, is that we are considered “esoteric” or out of the mainstream.

Printing is basically “putting something on something;” whenever you’re putting ink or something equivalent to ink on a substrate, that is printing. The physics are still basically the same; you have to look at the chemistry and physics of the substrate and the chemistry and physics of the material that acts like ink.

People don’t understand that TAGA has a lot of talent that’s generic to the whole area of “putting stuff on stuff.” Maybe we’re wrong in calling ourselves the “Technical Association of Graphic Arts.” Maybe we should be calling ourselves the “Technical Association of Putting Stuff on Stuff.”

The Microtech conference is all about a broad base of systems all the way down to the chemistry of substrates. The most interesting paper people are not those people making toilet paper, but those making the high end papers. Mead, for example, is doing some cool stuff with fibers to make the substrates we need to work on. That’s not trivial chemistry and simple surfaces.

People view our industry as one that’s in decline. I think traditional practitioners may be in decline and the industry itself has a choice to make. Will we go through a renaissance and become something bigger than putting ink on paper, or fade away into the past where the function will be taken over by somebody else?
If we don’t get off our duffs, the industry is going to go from being the second or third largest in the world to being an afterthought. That doesn’t mean that publishing or creative is going to go away; it’s our particular niche -- the master-based reproduction process -- that is in trouble.

The printing industry is at the beginning of a “sea change.” The impact will be less for the “big iron” guys; they are already manufacturing printers. They will be tuning their processes and benefiting from their size. There’s no equivalent digital technology in hand today or in the next few years that will change that.

The big winners will be the small and mid-sized printer who will take advantage of things like microtech. It’s not necessarily going to be the Donnelleys or the Quebecors who are going to dominate this market. Economy of scale isn’t going to help you a lot, but absolute precision in manufacturing will.

This is “bleeding edge” stuff. And, candidly – as we untangle how to do this – the profitability will make the return on a typical printing job pale in comparison.

WTT: Printing disposable cell phones? Now, that’s an interesting concept!

WJR: Think of paper cell phones. Yes, the shell is plastic, but most of the stuff inside is paper or printed plastic. That’s do-able. I don’t know that it will actually happen, but it is one of the logical and linear outcomes of this kind of consumer electronics.

It could bring the cost of a $100-$200 phone down to $4 or $5 and make it totally disposable. It won’t happen all at once. But potentially over the next few years, you could wind up with a telephone that, even from an environmental view, is simply disposable. The printing itself will become part of the recycling process because most conductive inks will pay for their own recycling from the precious metals contained in them.

And consider the actual production process. Unlike commercial printing, where average run lengths fall far short of the 100,000 mark, this sort of production will be millions of a given circuit board type or device type.

The technology that may benefit most in the long run is gravure. Narrow gravure has all the things you want in terms of stability including excellent registration and very high-resolution. The level of resolution required in for this type of printing is in the 10-20 micron range.

Set it up once, turn the press on, and come back periodically to take product off the press!

It’s a different mindset from traditional printing. At this point we don’t know enough, we’re still trying to find out how this works.

WTT: RFID – Radio Frequency ID – looks like the next labeling technology. What kind of opportunity do you see here for label and packaging printers?

: This concept has the packaging industry between a rock and a hard place. Companies as varied as the Gap and Prada to Wal-Mart and McDonalds are experimenting with RFID as a “new barcode.” Replacing barcodes at the retail level with RFID is almost certainly going to be a disaster.

The reason – people are paranoid. People have been pounded by privacy invasion and other “snoopy things” that go on. The Gillette experiment – where they put an RFID chip in the razor package - isn’t going to be a winner. At least right now.
On the other hand, you don’t ship things to warehouses in retail packaging. You ship things in cartons – where RFID is sensible for warehousing and distribution. No more “it fell off the truck!”

Another perfect application is to use RFID in the retail setting to facilitate self-check out and for security. The key is to have something that turns off the device when you pay for it and makes it obvious that its been turned off; unlike the Bennington stores where they wanted to leave the device live so they could recognize you the next time you came in the store.

At the conference we’ll be featuring a debate we’re calling “RFID–21st Century Smart Packaging or Is Big Brother Watching You?” There has been a recent announcement that a major discount store chain will not allow RFID tagging, and we’ll be presenting a “point/counterpoint.”

WTT: For point-of-sale, sign, and billboard printers, the term “printed displays” implies a shift away from printed paper or vinyl. What does this mean for wide format and other printers of signs and “environmental graphics?”

WJR: It’s a tough place for the wide-format product business right now. The signage industry is looking at the beginning of the end for current technology. There will always a display industry, but the business model will be better and more profitable, and the reproduction and manufacturing side will be dramatically altered.

The large display panels in the airports flashing CNN all day long are expensive. The current systems cost about $250,000 and don’t have particularly good resolution. Or for those 3-sided “flip” billboards – that’s $110,000 for that display. Imagine a world where you put a device on the billboard that will cost you $2-3K, and when you want to change the billboard, all you need is your laptop and your WI/FI.

WTT: Now is your chance to put on your “futurist” hat, and tell us what’s coming next.

WJR: Our questions now are not “is this going to happen?” or “is printing going to live?” The answers are clear: printing is probably not going to survive as we know it, and it has started now.

We’re not going to wake up tomorrow morning and have no printing. But over the next 15 to 20 years, I can see a day when a Speedmaster will be in the Smithsonian. Printing as we think of it will be something you go to Disney World to see. There will still be value in high quality printing, but it will not be a mass communication piece any more.

There is social change involved. Now you have 20,000-50,000 printers in the US (depending on your source and which technology you consider printing) and hundreds of thousands of people employed in the traditional graphic arts industry. Every one of those people will be influenced by these changes.

Unfortunately the people who will be most affected by this will be the skilled craftsmen. One of the real facts of life when you look at high-end production printing is that you have an automated, engineering manufacturing system. It’s a long way from “craft.” More and more “graphic arts” will have less and less to do with what we think of as classical graphical arts like magazines and catalogs, but more unusual manufacturing techniques.

Our industry is about is the application of chemistry, physics and all the basic sciences through engineering to allow us to manufacture a product. TAGA is focused on the science. We have a lot of bright guys in this organization and we’d like to add more guys who don’t think of themselves as being involved in graphic arts, but they really are.

For more information, please visit www.taga.org