GSI Technologies Brings Printing Expertise to PE Applications



As more and more printed electronics projects begin to travel the commercial path from the laboratory through to production, some printers are just now beginning to take notice. However, there have been a few companies who saw the opportunity to manufacture these systems as a way to branch out into a potentially lucrative field.

GSI Technologies, LLC, Burr Ridge, IL, is one printer that has successfully made the leap into the field of printed electronics. Siblings Bob and Suzanne Zaccone began the company as Graphic Solutions International, LLC in 1985 as a label and nameplate specialist. The Zaccones realized as far back as the late 1990s that the ability to leverage expertise in printing into electronic components could provide an excellent business opportunity.

Since 2004, the company has been majority owned by Thrall Enterprises, a family-owned holding company with corporate offices in Chicago. Today, GSI Technologies, the former Graphic Solutions International, is organized in two divisions, Functional Printing and Industrial Graphics, with $30 million in sales, 100 employees, and ISO certification. The Functional Printing division has become an industry leader in the field,

“You have to credit Bob and Suzanne Zaccone,” said Jack Kraemer, president and COO of GSI Technologies. “When they started the company in 1985, their focus was on printing pressure sensitive labels, and that’s remained a stable business for us. By the end of the 1990s, Bob started our functional printing business and invested in the equipment we needed, and now we have almost 15 years of experience in commercializing printed electronics products.”

The Zaccones began their PE efforts in the area of conductive printed products for the medical market such as glucose testing strips and electrodes, and that remains a key focus at GSI. They are good at what they do: GSI was the recipient of Abbott's 2010 Supplier Excellence Award, and prints billions of these medical strips annually.

“There was enough business out there that it caught the Zaccones’ eye,” Kraemer said. “Bob got a call from a tech company that was a start-up, and helped them take it to the next step. We love to work with these organizations where a technology is the life blood of that company and GSI can apply our manufacturing experience to bring the underlying product to life. It is definitely a segment that is exciting.

“Our product focus has been on medical products, such as components for diabetes testing,” Kraemer noted. “We have been in the medical field the longest. “

“We print a billion and a half sensors a year,” Dr. Gordon Smith, GSI technologies’ chief technology officer, added.

Entering the PE Business

Having begun by printing medical testing strips, the Zaccones quickly moved into other fields. In 2000, Graphic Solutions became an early licensee of roll to roll manufacturing of thin, flexible batteries. Later, the company began producing RFID antennas, medical electrodes, smart cards and RFID systems.

Kraemer noted that electroluminescent (EL) lamps became another important focus for the Zaccones.

“In 2003, the Zaccones bought the assets of BKL, which manufactured electroluminescent lamps such as the Razor phone keypad,” Kraemer said. “BKL had more than 30 years experience in the field, and when those assets came here, it accelerated our push into printed electronics.”

In 2004, the Zaccones sold the majority of the business to Thrall Enterprises.

“Thrall had been in the ink and printing industries for some time, and it was a good fit,” Kraemer noted. “The Zaccones had done a great job growing the functional printing business as entrepreneurs, but printed electronics was going to be a bigger business and they wanted to bring in a new management team. We have been continuing to add talent at the management team level for the future growth. Most of our team did not have printing in our background, but the infusion of new blood into the team has really focused the organization.”

The company has a wide variety of printing processes from which to select. The Industrial Graphics division uses a variety of printing processes, such as flexography, hot stamping, web and sheet printing and fotofinish (photo-etching). Meanwhile, the Functional Printing division mainly utilizes screen printing.

“We primarily do screen printing, which has certain advantages, particularly in the ability to increase the ink deposition thickness, which is advantageous for conductivity,” Dr. Smith said. “We have looked at digital and rotary screen, but the applications right now seem to be aligned with screen. We also make our own screens, and are backward integrated, which is very valuable to us. The number of inks that are available is also significant, ranging from silver, carbon-based, zinc, gold, nanoparticle inks and more.”

New Opportunities

As GSI developed a reputation for printing conductive systems, the company has branched out from its roots in medical sensors and EL lighting into new areas such as smart cards, sensors, and displays, while adding further personnel and capabilities. GSI Technologies’ “Lab to Fab®” business model enables companies with emerging technology and applications to finalize development and efficiently scale into production.

“Our engineering team is very important. A customer might come in with a sketch, and we can convert that sketch into a product drawing using CAD,” Dr. Smith said.

“We focus on developing our customers’ products from the lab to pilot production and up to manufacturing,” Dr. Smith added. “The types of customers we like to work with are those who bring specialized products to the market. We’ve had people who have come in and suggested ideas, and if it is not a good fit for us, we point them to alternative approaches that may work better.”

As a result, the company receives numerous inquiries, and looks closely to see if the fit is right.

“We have people coming to us, and we screen our potential customers to make sure we have the right technical fit,” Kraemer said. “There also has to be a competitive advantage for us. We look for the unique form, fit, and function when we are looking for a partner; we want to be their manufacturer. We work closely with our partners to become a part of their company.

“We stay away from commodity work,” Kraemer added. “We look for unique products. Our business has been growing as our customers’ existing business grows. We’re typically looking for projects that will go commercial in one or two years. Even though the economy has not been growing, our functional printing business has been expanding. We believe that this is still at an early stage and the commercial aspects are just starting to gel.”

Smart cards are an area of interest to GSI, although it has yet to advance into the mainstream.

“The one time passcode card industry has been slow to develop,” Dr. Smith said. “We have developed a display that functions in a hot laminated card; we are actively working with partners to scale into pilot volumes, but everything is still in development. We believe our flexible display technology is the only one that can survive the hot lamination card process.”

“As the technology develops, there are new solutions that people have yet to think of that will emerge,” Dr. Smith added. “There’s some wild stuff people come knocking on our door with.”

“There are more applications coming, and we are predicting growth,” Kraemer concluded. “We are looking at smart cards and displays, and have other projects going that we anticipate commercializing next year. We like the variety of what is coming to us, and feel good about the future.”