I recently came across an article in technology publication The Verge that examined a very interesting new technology — flexible microchips. Called PlasticArm, the chips are still very much in the early stages, and are more of a demonstration than an actual product. But the possibilities are intriguing.
In the announcement about the advancements — flexible microchips aren’t a brand new phenomenon — the company stated, “PlasticArm is an ultra-minimalist Cortex-M0-based SoC, with just 128 bytes of RAM and 456 bytes of ROM — it is twelve times more complex than the previous state-of-the-art flexible electronics.”
Right now, what that means is that the chip is only capable of running a few specifically designed test programs, and can’t compete with the complexity or versatility of the conventional silicone-based chips in use throughout the products we use today. But it is a glimpse into the future.
John Biggs, an engineer and Arm researcher, noted in the announcement, “As ultra-low-cost microprocessors become commercially viable, all sort of markets will open with interesting use cases, such as smart sensors, smart labels, and intelligent packaging. Products using these devices could help with sustainability by reducing food waste and promote the circular economy with smart life-cycle tracking. Personally, I think that the biggest impact could be in healthcare – this technology really lends itself to building intelligent disposable health monitoring systems that can be applied directly to the skin.”
Now think about it in terms of the print process — this technology is opening up a path for true printed electronics. If it continues to improve and be refined at the current rate, it’s only a matter of time before it is as cheap and easy to print a microchip on a piece or paper as it is to print ink.
And that opens the door to the wildly creative people that make up our industry.
Labels and packaging are the most obvious cases, and in all honestly are likely the first places that will eventually see presses capable of printing microchips in-line with conventional inks. But while it might be 10, or 20, or 30 years in the future, this could be the next major evolution of the print industry. The sky could, as the cliché goes, be the limit.
Printed electronics aren’t new, nor are they ready for prime time. But this new advancement takes us one step further toward that fascinating future. It is a vivid reminder that it isn’t a matter of if printed electronics usher in a major technological revolution, but rather when it will happen.