What’s been called “The Internet of Things” or “The Internet of Everything” is a revolution in computing that has seen the population of Internet connected “stuff” skyrocket. By 2020, there will be an estimated 50 billion devices connected to the Internet (or whatever its called then).
Today, the list of IP-enabled stuff is already long: phones, automobiles, household appliances, clothing. But, under the hood, a lot of these devices really aren’t much different from the PCs that grace our desks. They have hard drives, CPUs, memory, input devices, and so on. Most are still assembled in factories by humans and machines. This can be done cheaply and, in some cases, automated. But it’s still a labor-intensive and expensive process.
But what if you could just “print” working electronics like, say, The New York Times prints its daily newspaper (at least for now!)? That would change everything. For one thing: those flexible, printable electronics could be produced for a fraction of the cost of traditional components because they wouldn’t need to be assembled. Second: because they’re flexible and paper-like, the number of applications for the technology goes through the stratosphere – think of all the places you can stick a label.
That sounds like science fiction, but its more like science fact. Exhibit 1: the Norwegian firm, ThinFilm, on Wednesday announced the successful test of a printable electronics component that is the first, fully-functional “smart” label. The company claims its disposable Smart Sensor Label can track the temperature of perishable goods and is a “complete closed system built from printed and organic electronics.”
The company uses something called “ferroelectric memory,” an alternative to NAND flash memory that uses a thin ferroelectric film placed between two electrodes that use voltage applied to the film to “write” binary data into memory.
ThinFilm says it has been slowly adding to that foundation technology in recent years with innovations that allowed ferroelectric memory to be printed at high volumes on roll-to-roll printing presses. In 2010, the company partnered with PARC to create ThinFilm Addressable Memory, a printed writeable memory. By 2012, it had developed a way to write to memory based on input from sensors, and to protect the printed electronics from damage in the field. In June, ThinFilm announced the development of a low-voltage display driver in partnership with the firm Polyera. That enables the new Smart Sensor labels to indicate visually when a product has exceeded a maximum temperature threshold.
Smart Sensor is being marketed to pharmaceutical makers as a way to keep temperature-sensitive drugs and other products safe and effective, and to prevent perfectly useable products from being destroyed. Food wholesalers can use the labels to monitor the temperature of goods during shipment, which affects shelf life and food safety, Thinfilm said in a statement.
With more capabilities, however, the applications are growing, too. Inexpensive, disposable “smart labels” could enmesh themselves in the supply chain in ways that first generation technology like RFID tags cannot – limited as they are by cost and the constraints of their form.
Davor Sutija, Thinfilm’s CEO, says that the combination of memory and logic in a printable form is the foundation of an “extensible platform” for the “Internet of Everything.” “Printing provides scale and cost advantages that cannot be matched by any other electronic technology,” he said in a statement. ”