Think 3D Printing is Cool? How About Printing Your Own Electronics

The history of printing spans centuries and it’s one that is rich in breakthrough innovations and societal impact – from block printing to movable type to xerography to PARC’s own invention of the laser printer.

Now printing is blazing a new trail and leaving some of its paper roots behind.  Innovation is now focused on printing electronics, sensors, or circuits. Not to mention 3D.

Enlarged view of silicon chiplets

Enlarged view of silicon chiplets

What is not widely known is that all of these new printing innovations take advantage of the same technologies used in actual printers, such as the printheads; ink, particle, and materials management capabilities; and printhead control. Instead of the familiar ink on paper, it’s an all new “ink” printed on plastic, or glass, or really almost anything. Using semiconducting and conductive inks and materials, we can now print transistors, sensors, circuits, batteries, and displays. Advanced materials can be engineered to behave as a semiconductor, emit light, or sense analytes. In other words, we can now print electronic functionalities and PARC has been exploring a variety of printed components and circuits that are now finding themselves in applications from smart labels to flexible devices to wearable sensors. We are even working on making tiny silicon chiplets into inks, each containing entire circuits.

And, of course, we’ve all heard of a little advancement called 3D printing. With the emergence of 3D printing suddenly it becomes accessible to design and build both objects and (for now, fairly simple) devices. It’s the same type of process as we use to edit and print a document, and it’s all happening now. What is really exciting is that printing electronics has the potential to expand additive manufacturing to make things that contain intelligence. Ultimately the transition is more of an evolution – from editing and printing a document (traditional printing) to designing and printing a plastic part (3D) to designing and printing devices that include intelligence (printing electronics or integrated objects).

These new advancements hold incredible innovation and business-changing opportunities for many sectors, including printing companies and presses. With business diminishing due to digital distribution and e-books, there are new value chains and models for organizing manufacturing and distribution. The printing industry has the potential to re-tool their own existing set-ups and replace books with electronics. The idea of printing electronics can extend to both a large press or even the personal desktop – much like the equivalent of commercial printers and home desktop printers available today.

Example of a printed electronic

Example of a printed electronic

PARC’s years of print innovations has furnished us with the ability to explore and deliver an array of game-changing opportunities. We can now print batteries from multiple materials at once through our CoEx technology. We have partnered with Thinfilm for smart labels that contain one or two sensors or perhaps a dozen transistors to track, for example, the temperature of a product in the supply chain. We are also working on mass manufacturing of roll-to-roll printed circuits, using presses similar to those used for printing packaging.  In fact, adding electronics features directly to packaging is of high interest and, of course, wearables are another huge opportunity we are exploring.  And one of our most ambitious projects is with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working toward a vision that will enable on-demand printing of electronic devices on a space station.

Just like the historical progression of printing, we will get there step by step, starting with simple applications. Today we are at a similar stage as silicon transistors were in the 1960s, where their first major use was in the transistor radio, not the computer as many of us assume. We are encouraged that these first “good enough” applications of printing electronics are taking off. We ultimately believe the future of printed electronics will be both on your desktop and on a space station too.

If you are interested in learning more about working with PARC and our printed electronics program, please email us at

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