The road to smarter packaging: Austrian firm prints basic display directly onto paper

An Austrian printed electronics company called Prelonic says it’s managed to print a display directly onto cardboard.

Don’t expect Daily Prophet-style moving images in newspapers just yet, though – this was a very simple electrochromic (EC) display rather than a matrix display, meaning it can only show fixed signs and basic letters and numbers. However, the implications are intriguing.

Prelonic digit printIn the burgeoning field of printed electronics, the substrate is key – what surface are you printing onto? Generally, flexible polymers do the job, but if the goal is to stick a screen onto a newspaper or magazine page, or onto simple packaging, that means adding an extra layer.

Paper, with its rough, porous surface, presents its own problems. However, Prelonic said late last week that it had printed an EC display onto it, taking us closer to the inclusion of very low-cost printed displays on packaging. As CEO Friedrich Eibensteiner said:

“Printed electronics has to move closer to the production reality. Printers, publishers and packaging producers don’t want clean rooms, new substrates and new processes. They like to use their common technologies to utilize printed electronics. We have to offer such developments, like a paper display.”

Eibensteiner told me on Monday that the process would work with normal paper or cardboard that hasn’t had any special treatment – though if the cardboard has a very rough surface, then there should be an initial normal graphical printing layer in order to smooth it.

“Interactive packaging and magazines and to provide information is a fully new form [that] could be realized with this development,” he wrote by email. “For me, one of the most promising things in printed electronics is the use in low-cost mass applications to support safety, information and entertainment, and human-machine-interfaces like displays are necessary for that.”

According to Eibensteiner, it should be possible to also print batteries onto paper and cardboard, but developments in that arena are “not as mature as for displays.”

It ain’t e-ink as we’ve thought of it in the past. But if it’s cheap and easy enough to use – Prelonic employs standard screen-printing technology, pardon the pun – then the technique is a lot likelier to see widespread deployment in the shorter term.

This article was updated at the end of Monday to include Eibensteiner’s comment regarding batteries.