GSI Technologies: A Pioneer Maintains its PE Leadership



One of the early manufacturers of printed electronics devices, GSI continues to explore new avenues with its lab-to-fab approach.



By Jack Kenny



The company began life as Graphic Solutions Inc., a label printer in the Chicago suburb of Burr Ridge, IL, USA. It produced high quality pressure sensitive labels, nameplates and industrial panels using flexographic and flat screen presses. Run by the sibling team of Suzanne and Bob Zaccone, the company grew to be a well known performer in the narrow web converting industry, and earned several Best Managed Company awards from the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute.

Today the firm is called GSI Technologies, and is driven by markets entirely different from those with which it began. The change began in the mid- to late 1990s, when the Zaccones became fascinated by the potential of something called printed electronics. They sensed that this was a field that they could enter because their capabilities aligned well with the emerging market. Since then, of course, printed electronics has changed and grown, but GSI Technologies has grown with it.

“Around 1997, the company had initial inquiries from the medical/diagnostic market,” says Gordon Smith, chief technology officer. “We began with the printing of glucose test strips, and today we enjoy a very good business relationship with a customer in that field. We manufacture 1-1.5 billion strips per year – and that’s only about 10 percent of the market for the product. There are a lot of untapped regions in the world where diabetes is undiagnosed.”

GSI’s principals were eager to explore new niches in printed electronics early on. Some ideas took, others didn’t. The company had an arrangement for a while to print batteries for an overseas company that produced patches with time-release chemistries, “but due to technical reasons involving the process and the equipment, that relationship didn’t last,” Smith says. They also invested in RFID production, which promised big numbers in the early days. The company was among the first to print the antennas. “It came down to the fact that at the end of the day the pie wasn’t big enough,” notes Smith.

In 2004, a majority share of GSI Technologies was acquired by Thrall Enterprises, which has continued to invest in printed electronics. “We are growing,” says Smith, “and we continue to grow this year. Things are looking good in the printed electronics space.”

Growth, indeed. The industrial graphics division, which manufactures the labels and industrial panels, is still functioning, but it accounts for just 10 percent of the company’s revenue. “The bulk of our revenue is from the functional printing side: electroluminescent lamps, medical diagnostic products, inlays and modules, displays to go into active smart card type applications.”

Electroluminescence (EL) became a strong part of the company’s focus when it acquired BKL, a manufacturer of EL lamps, in 2003. BKL’s resources, people and equipment were transferred to the Burr Ridge facility. The range of EL products produced today by GSI is broad, Smith says. “We have customers that have developed EL lamps in the automotive area, for in-cabin illumination, dials in dashboards, illuminating features around the driver’s seat. In the past we were interested in applications for pagers and cell phones, but today’s main product lines are in the medical space, such as lamps that go into various medical boxes for hospitals and home care.”

The glucose test strips is a strong part of the company’s business, Smith reports. GSI Technologies’ role in their manufacture involves the printing of the electrodes between layers of plastic. After printing the product is shipped in rolls to the customer, who then applies the chemistry that interacts with blood and glucose.

Smart cards is another creative area in which the company has been active, and it is planning a launch of new products in the near future. In October 2008 it announced a manufacturing license agreement with NTERA, Inc. for flexible printed display technologies. NTERA’s trademarked process, called NanoChromics, is being produced by GSI on flexible substrates. “We are printing up to eight to 10 layers,” says Smith. “These are active components, including insulators, dielectrics, silver-based conductors, PEDOT. All of this has to be done in high yield. We’ve been working on this for the past eight to 10 months, and this year we should have some product announcements.”

GSI Technologies uses both roll and sheetfed application processes, employing flatbed screen and stop-cylinder screen printing technology. “If you want accuracy and still have the ability to do roll-to-roll, flatbed is nice,” Smith says. “Stop-cylinder is good for sheetfed. We can print between 700 and 1,000 impressions an hour.” All of the EL is manufactured on stop-cylinder presses. Some of the company’s presses have multi-color capabilities.

Smith says that drying is critical to the entire printing process. “We excel in this. We have some ovens that are basically over-designed. We have a lot of drying capacity on our lines.” GSI uses silver, silver chloride and carbon-based conductors on its presses. “We print resistors on some materials; we work with transparent conductors as well. And of course, there are all the different inks for electroluminescence. With the NTERA process we are working with electrochromic inks, and we also utilize hydrophilic and hydrophobic coatings.”

While the industrial graphics division makes use of flexographic presses, Smith doesn’t see flexo as having a role in PE as yet within GSI. “At this time our customers don’t need that capability. We are well aware, however, that we might go that way in the future.”

GSI Technologies promotes itself as a “lab-to-fab” company, capable of R&D right up through to production. “We can take the prototype off of the bench and manufacture first samples at very nominal costs,” notes Smith. “Then we can scale up and work into production. We can make recommendations on the design if it will run better on our equipment.”

Smith says that the company has available capacity today, but he sees that as a constant rather than a variable. “The way the investors look at this business is that it will always have capacity. As soon as opportunities come that might bump us up against limits, we invest and put in new systems.”

The company is upbeat about PE’s future. “Printed electronics leverages the speed and ease of use of printing technology typically found in graphics industries – flexo, screen, gravure, as well as inkjet. By definition these technologies are fully additive,” Smith says, “as opposed to making a subtractive process, such as that used in printed circuit boards or semiconductor areas.

“There is a lot of buzz out there on different advances that are happening. There is perceived opportunity in photovoltaic cells, transistor arrays, and the pioneering of ink chemistries.

“The difficulty in front of these types of developments is marrying the advancements with actual needs in the market. Printed electronics has been out there for 10 or 15 years, if not 20. When it was first conceived there were only possibilities. The price of traditional solid state technologies has dropped significantly. Replacing some of those solid state processes with a printing approach means that we have to address something other than cost. Printed electronics offers a clear advantage in its approach,” Smith says. “The functionality of the end device has to have some advantage in being printed.”