Determining Future Markets for Printed Electronics

There is an idea that printed electronics (PE) consists of ideas designed by engineers that can find markets. This, of course, is not the reality; designers need to come up with a use for the products.

This point was driven home during FlexTech Alliance’s Quarterly Workshop, titled “Printed Electronics Meets Consumer Product Companies,” as speakers from Kimberly-Clark and HAVI Global Solutions talked about real-world experiences using PE technology, and discussed opportunities and challenges alike for printed electronics.

The case of Kimberly-Clark’s Electronic Facial Carton offers a clear example. Allen Marquardt, packaging productions manager for Kimberly-Clark, offered a first-hand look at how PE was used in a Kleenex holiday packaging, and what problems caused the project to falter.

The Electronic Facial Carton was a limited run oval Kleenex package that used copper wiring, LED lights and a battery to set off a 20-second sequence of lights that could be seen through some holes in the package. It was expensive; whereas a regular oval package of Kleenex costs up to $1.99, this cost $5.99. The goal was to sell five million, but the test sample was 150,000, which had to be hand-assembled.

The problem was that no one wanted to pay that much for a blinking Kleenex box.

“Once the ‘wow’ factor wore off, people weren’t sure they wanted to pay $5.99 for a box of tissues,” Marquardt said. “We couldn’t justify going to market.”

Marquardt said that when all was said and done, the packaging was good, but not at that price point.

“The electronic packaging was cool, but it did not have the sustainable sales potential we needed,” Marquardt said. “Electronic packaging is often well received by customers at the right price point. However, they can tire quickly of it.

“Would we do it again?” Marquardt added. “Yes, but only when we could do it more cost effectively.”

Neil Darin, senior project manager for HAVI Global Solutions, seconded the idea that PE needs to add value that customers are wiling to pay for. HAVI is the main packaging supplier to McDonald’s, among other companies, and it has worked with PE products.

Darin defined active packaging as being able to interact with the environment around it. The question is whether the consumer really wants to pay for this information.

“Is the value being created worth it?” Darin asked. He offered a few examples that were not successful, such as the Self-Heating Coffee Cup via Chemical Reaction and the Playtex Talkin’ Sipster Cup, but these did not succeed due to their own limitations (the cup had safety issues and a good cup of coffee can be found pretty much everywhere, and the cup was “annoying.”) He added that there are plenty of opportunities.

“We believe there are low cost opportunities for interactive elements on disposable packaging,” Darin said. “We also believe that surface printing and coating is an undertapped opportunity for providing value at an economical cost.”