Advances in printed electronics could rapidly redefine what a "computer" is.
Oslo, Norway-based ThinFilm Electronics announced plans to create an electronics device with basic computing components printed on a strip of plastic. The "smart tag" features ThinFilm's memory with printable transistors from research company PARC, a battery, and display.
It appears that the first use of the very simple computing device will be to monitor temperature on perishable goods. South African company PST Sensors and ThinFilm plan to make a prototype of a disposable temperature sensor to monitor foods or medicine, such as vaccines.
When people receive food or pharmaceuticals, the smart tag will display the temperature record. This method will be less expensive and more accurate than placing alarm sensors in shipping containers, ThinFilm said.
ThinFilm's technology, which has been under development since the 1990s, is a printable memory device that stores the ones and zeros of digital information by changing the orientation of polymer chains when a voltage is applied.
Last year, ThinFilm partnered with Xerox company PARC to combine its ferroelectric memory with PARC's printed transistors. Adding computing logic allows the device to not only read, write, and process data, but also to store more data.
The computing and storage are very limited on this sort of device and will work for less than a year but it is low power and, because it's printed on plastic, low cost. Data can be stored many times and is not lost with loss of power. By partnering with companies that have made a battery, display, and sensor for its memory system, ThinFilm has created smart tags which can be used for many different applications, said CEO Davor Sutija.
"For the first time, you have a smart device that is fully printed, which means you don't have the upfront cost that you have with traditional electronics," he said. "This allows for 30 cents a tag."
The company sees integrated printable electronics replacing silicon processors and enabling the Internet of things. For example, the company has deals to supply smart tags that add interactivity to toys and games. It has also had discussions with auto companies to use tags to gather data on vehicle brakes and notify drivers when they need service.
In 2013 or 2014, the company plans to add a wireless networking module to its smart tag. That will allow everyday objects to communicate with the near-field communications in cell phones, said Sutija.
The smart tags are about 3 inches wide and one and a half inches high, and electronics are printed in South Korea with a multilayered roll-to-roll process, he said.