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Ink Jet Technology as a Manufacturing Process: Much Promise, But a Long Way Off

Press release from the issuing company

Hanover, MA -- March 2007 -- Ink jet technology is an extremely flexible technology that has the potential to expand beyond printing applications into manufacturing and deposition applications. This is possible because ink jet heads are precision instruments that deposit small droplets of a fluid (both ink and non ink) in a defined, repeatable pattern. When jetting inks, ink jet heads are used for printing as we know it. When jetting non fluids, ink jet heads can be used in deposition and manufacturing applications. When used as a manufacturing tool, ink jet heads will deposit conductive chemistry, creating in effect “printed electronics.” Using ink jet technology in this way to print electronics is a concept that holds promise and elicits much discussion, opinions and hype. However, while there are many advantages to ink jet used as a manufacturing process to print electronics, in reality the market is in its very early stages and real products are more than ten years away. According to Mark Hanley, President of I.T. Strategies, “The reason for the interest in digital technology for manufacturing printed electronics is that today’s manufacturing process for integrated circuits is subtractive at high temperatures and very costly. The process lays down more very expensive material than is required and then strips away what is not needed. On the other hand, ink jet technology is an additive process that allows materials to be deposited only where required at low temperatures, on flexible substrates at low cost. This method of manufacturing would also require a lower investment in plant costs compared to current integrated circuit manufacturing. Ink jet technology used in this way has the potential to open up the market for new, low-cost electronic goods, such as disposable radio frequency identification (RFID) chips.” There are many advantages to printed electronics. Among them: - The generation of ultra low-cost, ubiquitous consumer electronics through a radical shift in the manufacturing process from very-high cost integrated circuits to a mass-production process processing technology that holds the promise of cost reducing electronics to the point of allowing them to become throw away. - The ability to create flexible printed electronics. - The ability to create large area electronics, which is prohibitively costly for standard, integrated circuit-based electronics manufacturing. - The potential to put electronics manufacturing in-line or close-to in line with the manufacture of products on which or with which the electronics are designed to function. - The potential for scalable manufacturing and on-demand response which are enablers of new markets of new users who will require high customization on a low scale on short notice at profitable pricing levels. Although ink jet technology holds out the promise of low-cost manufacturing, printed electronics are not simply a substitute for existing integrated circuit based electronics products. Their functionality and their economics are very different from integrated circuits and the point of printed electronics is not to substitute for existing processes but rather to create new markets. This creates some large barriers to market development including: - Slow development curve as the new market develops - No established market means no established standards among developers - Need for extraordinary degree of economic and technical cooperation between otherwise independent companies developing components today - No single integrated market could lead to distracted development efforts and misplaced investment time and money. Ink jet technology has proven to be very effective as a precision manufacturing system. However, while there are many advantages to ink jet as a manufacturing process, the market for printed electronics is in its early stages. The eventual goal of jetting RFID tags onto goods is probably more than ten years away.