Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication Department is Educating PE’s Leaders of Tomorrow

Visitors who attended Printed Electronics USA 2013 conference, held last December in Santa Clara, CA, had the opportunity to see a printed electronics (PE) system produced on paper in action during the show.

The Origami Electronics demonstrator, consisting of a foldable sailboat with simple printed circuits made up of silver ink that light up a yellow and red light when pressed together, was created between IDTechEx, the organizer of the PE USA 2012 conference, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Graphic Communication Department and its students, led by professor Dr. Malcolm Keif.

Cal Poly’s students have been extremely active in the PE field, developing numerous projects, such as the 2010 Canvas Magazine PE cover, showing what printed electronics can accomplish. With a full academic program in place, Cal Poly is well positioned to train the next generation of leaders for the printed electronics field.

Cal Poly's Graphic Communication Department has had a long tradition in the field of printing. Founded in 1946 as a school for country newspaper printing, the department has been involved in printing education and research for more than 60 years.

“Throughout that period, we have developed as a leader in graphic arts education, and we are presently among the top universities for graphic communication in the U.S.,” Dr. Keif noted.

Naturally, that experience in printing is useful for students learning about PE; presently, Cal Poly is in the process of forming a graduate degree (pending approval by the California State University Board of Trustees) that will focus on printed electronics and other functional imaging.

“This master of science degree stemmed out of a belief that the industry is moving into applying functional materials and combining them with graphics,” Dr. Keif said. “We have expertise in scaling printing systems, and that seems to be a big need in the industry. Combining our deep understanding of printing systems, our proximity to Silicon Valley and the polytechnic nature of our university, it seemed like a natural fit to make this move now.”

In addition to its new graduate degree, Cal Poly is also proposing an online, instructor-lead graduate certificate program. This program will be comprised of five courses and will offer a robust education for those new to the printed electronics space or wanting to round out their education.

Dr. Keif noted that the strength of Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication Department lies in three areas.

“We have a deep knowledge of conventional printing systems, including roll handling and drying/curing systems,” he said. “Second, we have a strong focus on integrating graphics and functional – marrying the arts and sciences. We like to call it expressive technologies. Our group likes to create interesting applications that are not only scientifically astute but also engaging. We like to make things interesting in addition to functional.

“Third, we have a strong background in packaging,” Dr. Keif added. “So, in some respects we feel more at home in the packaging space than we do in the electronics world. But we are broadly focusing all of our efforts toward printed electronics, active packaging and security applications. We plan on doing some work in 3D printing applications as well when they make sense.”

That long history in printing helps differentiates Cal Poly from other research groups.

“We have a few things that work well for us,” Dr. Keif said. “We have a long history in the printing industry, so we are well known and have many partnerships. We have worked with many of the leading companies in printing, imaging, workflow, materials and software.

Cal Poly’s proximity to the technology-rich Silicon Valley area also is a plus.

“Our geography offers some unique distinctions,” he said. “We are close to many of the research groups in Silicon Valley, as well as large consumer goods companies. We have found ourselves in some high-profile projects, which gives us an opportunity to really stretch ourselves. Usually the results are good, but we don't shy away from potential failure. We believe we learn every time we try.”

Working with other universities is also a strength of Cal Poly.

“We are not afraid to work with others,” Dr. Keif noted. “Right now, I have projects going with UC Berkeley, UCLA, Clemson University, University of Munich Applied Sciences and others. We are big fans of collaboration.”

Cal Poly has a wide variety of conventional printing equipment to utilize, including flexo, gravure, inkjet, screen and offset equipment, as well as some state-of-the-art specialized machinery.

“We have an 8000 DPI laser imaging device, and have access to very sensitive morphology measuring equipment,” Dr. Keif said. “Even though we are well-equipped, we also realize we need some new equipment to go to the next level in printed electronics. We are actively working on that now.

This experience provides the basis for the Graphic Communication Department’s expertise in the field of printing.

“We know how imaging systems work, which I think some folks do not fully understand,” Dr. Keif said. “When using graphic equipment, understanding how applications and imaging systems generate traces, lines or device features is critical. We understand printing systems. We can build a file that works in both the graphic space and the manufacturing or engineering space. We also have tremendous campus resources. We have first-rate engineering groups, and when we join our resources, we are able to accomplish big things.”

As a result, Cal Poly has been in the forefront of a number of interesting projects.

“We have probably gotten the most recognition from a couple of the demonstrators we have worked on,” Dr. Keif said. “We designed and managed the Canvas Magazine Electrochromic cover. We also designed and produced the Printed Electronics USA origami sailboat. Those are fun and novel, and show some of the interactive capabilities of printed electronics.

“On the research side, we have work going in secondary power cells, screen printing of low-viscosity inks and a few other projects that I can not discuss at this time,” he added. “We are excited about having an increased research group with our new graduate program.”

All in all, Dr. Keif has high expectations for printed electronics and the role that Cal Poly will play in the field.

“It is an exciting time for printed electronics,” Dr. Keif said. “I understand some have tempered their expectations – partly because of the economy and partly because of how over-hyped PE have been. However, I am still very bullish on this space.

“We have a lot of work to do to get to where we need to be in printing conductive materials,” Dr. Keif added. “But that is great for research groups and universities. We look forward to the challenge of designing unique applications, building robust platforms and scaling printing systems for manufacturing.”