Grant for printed electronics could be boon for Clemson, region

An energy-harvesting antenna produced on a press can pick up cell phone signals. Sept. 10, 2015 - Chip Tonkin, Liam O'Hara and Steve Folger with Flexographic press in Harris Smith Building.

An energy-harvesting antenna produced on a press can pick up cell phone signals.

Imagine bandages that detect infections, flexible paper lightbulbs that screw into a light socket or food containers that notify you of an allergen inside. Now, imagine all of this technology is created on a printing press and that Clemson University is on the cusp of helping bring it to mainstream America.

Those technologies and Clemson’s expertise in helping produce them are at the root of a recently announced $75-million grant that the federal government hopes will put the U.S. on the forefront of flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing.
Through an Obama administration initiative, the Nationwide Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a five-year grant has been awarded to the FlexTech Alliance, based in San Jose, Calif. The alliance is composed of a consortium of universities and industries, including Clemson. Its charge is to develop advanced technologies and processes to put the U.S. on the cutting edge of next-generation manufacturing.

“We know the science and industry where we can bring real solutions to bear. There are only a couple of universities that have the capability to do this,” said Charles “Chip” Tonkin, director of the College of Business and Behavioral Science’s Sonoco Institute for Packaging Design and Graphics, graphic communications chair and one of the authors of the grant proposal.

Collaborating with Tonkin on the grant application were Steve Foulger of the Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies (COMSET) and Liam O’Hara from graphic communications.

“The significance of the Sonoco Institute’s role in this is difficult to overstate,” said Foulger. “Right now, one can’t even imagine the limitless uses for flexible hybrid technologies, and Clemson University is at the forefront of developing some of those uses.”

The Sonoco Institute is a national leader in combining the synergies of packaging design and graphic communications.

“Traditionally, people think of printing presses producing eye-catching wrapping for consumer goods,” said O’Hara. “But beyond color, we can also print conductive and functional inks to create electronic devices inexpensively.”

One of the keys to Clemson and the institute’s role in this grant was the collaboration of the graphic communications, materials science and packaging science programs. The expertise in print manufacturing and materials science existed on campus; it just needed to be consolidated for the synergy to occur.

That happened when the College of Business and Behavioral Science, the College of Engineering and Science, COMSET and the University’s vice president of research helped fund a lab at the Sonoco Institute for these disciplines to be united.

Tonkin and his associates are quick to point out that the NNMI effort to get these technologies to a commercial-use level is in its infancy. “The initial funding is the tip of the iceberg on what it will take to mass produce these electronics for mainstream America,” Tonkin added. “It will take additional commitments from all those involved to realize how far this technology can take us.”

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