In a new approach to electronic design, companies such as Thinfilm and Ynvisible are developing cheap and disposable printable electronics that do not require an Internet connection or an IP address to make everyday items connected components of the Internet of Things. Thin, plastic printable electronics can be embedded in almost any item to transfer information to a smart device. For example, a bag of lettuce may be able to alert a smart fridge when it is past its expiration date.
Printable electronics are not like the complex computer chips that power smart devices such as TVs and refrigerators. Instead, they are single-use electronics that do not require an Internet connection. Some printable electronics communicate visually by changing color or using a display screen. Others use near-field communication (NFC), a radio standard, to connect to smart devices.
Printable electronics could revolutionize the Internet of Things because not only can they be embedded in a variety of materials, they can also be manufactured at a low cost. Thinfilm’s electronic tags, for example, range from two to five cents each when they are bought in bulk.
“That’s anywhere from a sixth to a tenth of the cost of a traditional microcontroller (a low-power computer chip),” explains Quartz.
The uses for printable electronics are innumerable. Adult diapers embedded with electronics could alert caretakers when the diaper needs to be changed. Clothing stores could abandon unwieldy anti-theft devices and embed electronics into their clothing to ensure that nobody steals them. Visitor badges at different institutions could track where people are in the building and restrict access to different areas.
Thinfilm has spent about $150 million on development, and this August, the company plans to begin shipping “seven-figure volumes” to customers. Ynvisible recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign for its printable electronics.