Advanced manufacturing by printing of complex inks

Benefits to business and practitioners

WCPCResearch at the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating (WCPC) at Swansea University, a UK centre of excellence for the plastic electronics industry and a hub for the plastic electronics industry in Wales, has produced a sophisticated understanding of the physics of the fluids and interfaces in the printing process. The Centre has also pioneered the development of printing with complex, multi-phase inks.

The application in volume manufacture made possible by the research has generated significant, multi-million pound economic impact in the printable electronics and packaging industries.

This has directly led to the creation of new high technology printed products, including next generation lighting. It has also led to the development of the supply chain for complex functional inks, whilst a comprehensive revision of the ISO standard on ink colorimetric characterisation in 2013 has demonstrable impact on practitioners.

The research has delivered a sophisticated understanding of the fundamental processes of fluid mechanics and image transfer and predictions of the ink transfer process. The findings represent a major improvement in the characterisation of printing inks and an application-driven paper for printed electronics. Supported by two £1m projects with the DTI Design of High Speed Machinery program, this work uncovered the lack of basic underpinning process science, which became the focus for the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating (WCPC) at Swansea University over the last twenty years.

An international collaboration with Group Info Tech directly led to inks that could be successfully applied to paper leading to a whole new class of functional, flexible electronic products.

During this period there has also been a drive to take advantage of the large area capability of traditional print processes to provide scale-up of laboratory concepts based on micro, nano and bio materials.

One of the most successful volume products in this period has been self-illuminated electro luminescent posters. The work at WCPC on printing of conducting inks on paper, an international collaboration with Group Info Tech performed as part of the EPSRC Platform Grant showed for the first time the potential for the printing of conductive inks on paper. These developments have led to significantcollaborative funding for OLED (organic light-emitting diode) lighting development and more recently the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacture (CIM) in large area electronics with Cambridge, Manchester and Imperial College.  In this latter activity it is the scaling science and equipment developed over the last ten years that has led to these high impact collaborative programmes.

Our research has delivered clear, economic impacts and has led to a comprehensive revision of the ISO standard on ink colorimetric characterisation, which has significant impact on practitioners and has changed printing industry practice:

  • Development of a new class of functional products at the core of the range produced by Nth Degree Technology, a spin out company from Group Info Tech: The capabilities of this approach to printed electronics has enabled the production of an addressable Electroluminescent (EL) paper television display, and the launch of a self-illuminated point of sale poster based on EL technology (posters that make use of printed lighting). As a consequence of the studies undertaken with Swansea University as part of its research program into image transfer, a new business has been established.
  • Many of the companies in the printing sector are small-to-medium sized enterprises with little or no resource for research and development.  The expertise generated as a result of the research led by the WCPC was recognised by the European Regional Development Fund, which provided technology transfer funding for a number of industry facing projects, for which the WCPC won the 2009 Regiostars award.
  • The Welsh Government has provided funds through its Academia 4 Business programme, which enables Welsh SMEs to become involved with advanced printing and coating activity at Swansea. The Printing of Functional Materials (Print FM) project has been targeted at the development of processable functional coatings. In 2011/2012 alone, the products generated revenue for the company of £140,855, led to three new patent applications and the employment of two new staff.
  • Revision of an ISO standard as a direct result of the underpinning research: Most packaging is printed using flexographic printing. In 2012 this had an estimated value of $263m. An experimental program at Swansea to evaluate the standards for ink colorimetric characterisation for flexographic printing identified deficiencies in the method of test print preparation which resulted in there being no control on the ink film thickness. ISO 2846-5 “Graphic technology - Colour and transparency of printing ink sets for four colour printing - Part 5: Flexographic printing” has been modified to address these issues.