Practical electronics

I've followed the plastic electronics story since my earliest days as a science journalist. If I remember rightly, I think I had the scoop in New Scientist magazine on the Cambridge University team led by Richard Friend when they first started publishing their polymer LED results...1989 or thereabouts, I think.

There has been lots of major developments in the last quarter of a century, many of which have been covered in the pages of Materials Today, of course, by yours truly and others. Some of the research has stayed under the proverbial radar in some ways. Until now. PragmatIC Printing Ltd (Cambridge and Sedgefield, County Durham), a world leader in flexible electronics, has just completed a £5.4 million funding round led by Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC) with support from ARM Holdings and existing shareholders to scale-up its operations to bring flexible integrated circuits  to the  "Internet of Things". They plan to be making100 million flexible integrated circuits later this year.

Much of the printed electronics industry has been about large-area applications for displays and lighting. PragmatIC has focused on printing smaller and smaller features on the microscopic and nanoscopic scales using an imprint method. They have developed a range of planar and self-aligned device architectures that allow them to simplify the manufacturing process by reducing or avoiding entirely the "registration" steps needed for building up printed 3D architectures on a thin, flexible substrate.

The company's research and development will bring us ultra-thin and low-cost flexible microcircuits that can be incorporated at little expense into mass-market objects and packaging. They are the company and its backers suggest ready to revolutionize everyday living by providing real-time information about every aspect of the environment in which an object or package finds itself.

In the heady days of the 1970s TV pundits talked of newly emerging devices containing the mythical "silicon chip". And, of course, since then we have seen technology that changes how we live. Scott White, Chief Executive Officer at PragmatIC, points out how, "We have become accustomed to silicon chips being incorporated into high-value documents such as passports and credit cards, but there are limitations to how robustly and cost-effectively this can be done. Our technology platform creates a microcircuit thinner than a human hair that can be easily embedded in any flexible surface."

But, rather than simply adding computational power to objects, packages, paper documents, clothing even, PragmatIC also plans to embed sensors, processors and wireless communication. Their approach could soon make "embedded intelligence" an almost ubiquitous reality at a low price. The company's commercial connections are mostly secret, for now, although it has previously announced deals with the likes of Procter and Gamble product packaging, De La Rue plc on remotely activated security labels and Hallmark subsidiary Tigerprint on electronic greetings cards.

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".