With Major Projects Coming to Fruition, The Future is Bright for T-Ink

The field of printed electronics (PE) depends on the ability of innovative companies to design and manufacture products that can replace traditional electronic components such as switches, sensors and wires. These products have to be able to be manufactured on a wide range of substrates and by any of the traditional printing processes, thus creating new products while reducing cost.

Arguably the leading PE innovator, T-Ink has built up an incredible array of projects during the past 10 years. Headquartered in New York City, T-Ink, or “Thinking Ink,” has partnered with some of the world’s leading consumer product and industrial companies, including Ford, General Motors, US Gypsum, Sylvania, Whirlpool, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Hasbro, Toys R Us, Viacom, Kraft, Nabisco, Mead Westvaco, Hallmark, WestPoint Stevens, Playtex, Elmer’s and the U.S. government.

The company has developed more than 2,000 ink formulations for PE projects, and its design team has come up with a vast array of products that have reached the market. The company’s leaders say the best is yet to come, as T-Ink has major projects in the pipeline, ranging from automotive and white goods to displays, textiles and security applications.

The History of T-Ink

While T-Ink was officially formed in 2002, its beginnings date back to American Ceramicraft, Inc., formed by Andrew Ferber in 1980. Mr. Ferber had developed a host of innovative promotional items for companies ranging from Mattel, Avon and Wal-Mart, and brought a project for Mattel to Terry Kaiserman in 1995.

“Andy had a project in which he had come up with the idea of using conductive ink to put LEDs on a T-shirt,” said Mr. Kaiserman, chief technical officer for T-Ink, Inc. “Engelhard had conductive inks, but they were brittle for textile applications. He needed a screen ink specialist who could develop a conductive plastisol ink. I was working with Union Ink, and I was able to make the ink Andy needed. I then left Union Ink to start working with Andy.”

By 1996, Mr. Ferber had founded Ferber Technologies, LLC, and formed Engelhard Colortronics, a joint venture with Engelhard to develop a business to commercialize his patented conductive ink technology. The company had success in the toy field, but that quickly became too limiting.

“By 2002, we formed TinkWorks, and we were successfully doing promotions and designing and manufacturing toys and games, based on conductive inks and coatings, but in the toy bsuiness, you need a constant stream of innovations. Our goal of setting up TinkWorks was to show people and other toy companies finished products made with printed electronics,” Mr. Kaiserman said. “In the toy business, you have constantly reinvent yourself. We realized that we wanted to look for ways to incorporate printed electronics into other markets and not be limited to toys and games..”

To increase demand for its products, Mr. Ferber decided the time was right to bring in design experts to find ways to utilize printed electronics into new products. With that, they merged T-Ink with AGE, a design firm led by John and Anthony Gentile.

“By putting together T-Ink’s and AGE’s capabilities, we could pitch everybody on the possibilities of using printed electronics,” Mr. Kaiserman said. “We believe that everything can be printed using conductive ink.”

T-Ink doesn’t work with end users only; the company also works closely with other PE manufacturers to add levels to their products.

“We are in a unique position,” said Mr. Ferber, T-Ink’s co-chairman. “It’s a lot of fun inventing. There are a lot of very innovative PE companies moving toward us to add more layers of capability to their projects. We can take their capabilities and add to it, and we can make all these materials compatible.”

Ink and Design Specialists

T-Ink’s expertise in ink is one key to its success, as the company’s R&D team continually works up new formulations in partnership with its customers at its Butler, PA R&D center. To focus on automotive and white goods products, the company established a facility in Royal Oak, MI.

“We sink so much back into R&D in order to continually invent new processes and products that improve our patent portfolio. We are never satisfied that we have pushed the envelope far enough,” Mr Kaiserman noted. “Our customers’ needs and wants drive us to new inventions all the time.

“I love working with ink, as there is so much you can do with it,” Mr. Kaiserman added. “We now have close to 2,000 ink formulations. We have formulations for flexo, screen, inkjet, gravure and offset as well as coatings, and have developed UV/EB-, water- and solvent-based systems, along with catalyzed and oxidized systems. We make the entire gamut of conductive ink. We are primarily working in screen and offset, and have done gravure in the past. We are now starting a big flexo project.

“We are in the midst of developeing an ink that is even more conductive and less expensive than particle-based silver, and the mixture we are preparing has bettered our resistance levels,” Mr. Kaiserman added. “We are even working with nanowires, and can print it on a surface and then print 4-color process over it to hide the conductive ink.”

Mr. Kaiserman said that for larger batches, toll manufacturers produce T-Ink’s inks.

“There are so many tolling companies out there,” Mr. Kaiserman added. “We can produce up to 20 gallons of our inks, but for larger batches, we farm it out to toll manufacturers who do not produce their own conductive inks.”

The Automotive Market and Beyond

One area where T-Ink has found success is the automotive market. By designing and printing capacitive switches to replace control panels, T-Ink is saving car manufacturers cost as well as weight, while improving performance.

“The automotive market has been ideal for our technology,” Mr. Kaiserman said. “Automakers have to cut weight and cost, and we are printing capacitance switches for control panels. Our overhead consoles save weight, time and cost, and weigh one pound less than the previous switch. It took more than three years to get there.”

Mr. Kaiserman noted that the overhead consoles are presently screen printed, and the ink has the ability to elongate up to 500% while maintaining continuity. He added that while gravure printed inks can elongate up to 200%, T-Ink is trying to increase that to 300%.

“The overhead console capacitance switches are printed on the B side, formed, trimmed and injected molded,” Mr. Kaiserman said. “We have patented the process.
The beauty of this is that you can replace mechanical switches with capacitive switches, which you can print directly on the B side. As a result, you can get faster switching at much less cost. We believe this will become ubiquitous and even replace PCB-based capacitance switches that are now being used.”

“We have great opportunities for other automotive products in different parts of the car, including heated seats,” Mr. Kaiserman added. “For example, one success we had early on was making heating elements for hunting jackets for Sears and a number of other outer wear companies. However, the power source was a lithium battery, which was large and viewed as a drawback. We have been able to successfully adapt that heating element technology for other areas, such as heated automobile seats. We are also working with auto makers on lighting options that are printed as well.”

Printed electronics can be used for much more. Displays for white goods is one promising field. Another area of interest is security.

“Printed electronics can replace QR codes and some barcodes, and offer heightened authentication and security, whether it is for labels or on a carton,” Mr. Kaiserman said. ”We can even digitally print security items for lottery tickets.”

While T-Ink develops the inks and designs the projects, it relies on the printers who are approved by their customers to produce their projects.

“Customers are comfortable with their own supply chain,” Mr. Kaiserman said. “You can buy printing so inexpensively, and you can usually go to the customer’s regular printer and teach them how to process these inks. We have delivered highly conductive quickset inks that runs 18,000 sheets per hour on a standard offset press, and the printers were able to run it within +/- 10% conductivity ranges. It doesn’t impact their productivity. One project we worked on with McDonald’s required 100 million items printed around the world with our conductive carbon-based quickset ink.”

Mr. Kaiserman noted that T-Ink does not have anyone who is dedicated solely to sales in the field, as projects continually pour in as the world realizes the advantage of printed electronics.

“Customers and developers are always coming to us,” Mr. Kaiserman said. “We are inundated with projects, which is an inventor’s dream. We now have a myriad of engineers and specifiers working with us to develop next generation consumer and industrial products.”

“I’m pleased where we are headed,” added Mr. Ferber. “I think we are going to be the dominant systems integrator in printed electronics, and I see our growth becoming exponential.”

All in all, Mr. Kaiserman said this is a very exciting time for T-Ink.

“We’ve been blessed,” Mr. Kaiserman said. “We see opportunities for capacitive switches for textiles and numerous other substrates. We are working on healthcare products on projects such as cardiac vests for patient monitoring. All told, we have 40 patents currently issued or pending.

“I think we will double in size by next year; 2014 will be an incredible year for us,” Mr. Kaiserman added. “We are working on huge volume projects for 2014 and 2015 that have 24 to 36 months design cycles for automotive and white goods. Most of these developments will be replacing their mechanical switches and other methods of capacitive switching with our in mold capacitance switches. Some really neat things are coming next year.”