Functional printing at Newcastle: Bridging the gap from laboratory to industry

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The next time you’re standing at the printer waiting for it to churn out your latest report, imagine instead that it was printing pages of sensors rather than pages of words. Welcome to the fascinating world of functional printing, where instead of producing text and images, printers are producing functional devices. The simplest example of functional printing is braille: raised dots allowing fingers to do the reading. At the other end of the spectrum are multi-layer devices that have electrical properties such as light emitting diodes, solar panels, and sensors.

The Centre for Organic Electronics (COE) at the University of Newcastle is at the forefront of translating sensor developments in the laboratory into printable products that can be produced at scale by industry. A part of the Australian National Fabrication Facilities (ANFF) Materials Node, the COE is focussed on functional printing at scale.

“Our pilot-scale printing facility includes multiple roll-to-roll (R2R) systems where we can print ink layers, metal layers, and encapsulate devices”, said Dr Ben Vaughan the ANFF facility manager at the COE. The range of printing techniques available includes slot-die coating, flexographic/gravure coating, screen printing, sputter coating, and UV-cured encapsulation. “This broad range of techniques allows us to produce many different types of device such as solar cells, sensors, and even explosive detonators”, said Dr Vaughan. “The print facility and the expertise of our staff is available to researchers in the NSW Smart Sensing Network through ANFF”.

Indeed, many researchers and companies are already taking advantage of these facilities. One such company is iQX Ltd, which is developing a saliva- based blood glucose monitoring strip. These sensors can simply be licked to provide a saliva sample for glucose monitoring by diabetics, significantly increasing their quality of life. Based on a printable transistor platform, these devices have been developed for many years at laboratory scale using typical lab processes. Now these exciting developments are being translated onto R2R printing equipment, greatly increasing the volume of sensors able to be produced and demonstrating their production using techniques that are very close to the commercial production process.

“We see ourselves as a pilot-scale fabrication and manufacturing provider for researchers in NSW looking to take their sensor innovations to the next stage of development”, said Dr Vaughan, “By helping to bridge the gap between laboratory development and industrial production, we hope to support the NSSN’s goal of making NSW a recognised global leader in smart sensing innovation”.

For further information about the ANFF printing facilities at the COE please contact Dr Ben Vaughan, ben.vaughan@newcastle.edu.au 

Inka-Maria Bane