Ultrathin and pliable, the functional film developed by InnovationLab – Germany’s leading platform for applied research in the field of printed electronics – and Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG (Heidelberg) fits neatly into clothing, car seats, or mattresses and also underneath flooring. Above all, however, it is particularly smart for two main reasons. Firstly, each square meter of film is equipped with up to a million sensors that register the tiniest changes in pressure, temperature, or humidity and report their findings to a computer. Secondly, there is no need to use a process involving several stages or a similarly complex method to apply all this sensor technology to the film. It is simply printed on – complete with all conductive pathways, sensors, and the interface to digital end devices.
For some years now, printed electronics has been regarded as a market for the future worth billions. Megatrends such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data are leading to rapid growth in demand, because all the associated business models are based on collecting and utilizing digital data. Using sensors makes the necessary data collection a largely automated process. What’s more, the fact that printing enables versatile sensors to be produced far more cost-effectively is opening up completely new areas of application.
Heidelberg is the first manufacturer in the world with the ability to print sensors on film on a large scale. Should a professional tennis club decide to lay film under a playing area totaling just under 670 square meters to analyze how players move around the court, for example, the smart underlay required can be printed in less than an hour on a single machine. “Crucially, easy scalability means we can achieve a completely new price level compared with previous technologies,” says Marcus Römermann from the Printed Electronics unit at Heidelberg. “That makes the new technology particularly attractive for industrial-scale applications, but also for industry startups and niche markets with growth potential,” he adds.
The OccluSense system from Cologne-based company Dr. Jean Bausch GmbH & Co. KG is a prime example of a successful innovation for niche markets.
For the first time ever, OccluSense enables dentists to digitally check the distribution of masticatory pressure during occlusion – that is to say when the upper and lower jaws come together – with a view to identifying and subsequently correcting any malocclusions. For this purpose, the WLAN-enabled hand-held device is equipped with a sensor just 60 micrometers thick incorporating no fewer than 1,018 pressure sensors. “When the patient bites or masticates during the occlusion test, the sensors can distinguish between 256 different pressure levels, which is far more accurate than with any conventional articulating paper that stains the tooth when pressure is applied,” explains Managing Director André Bausch. After the measurement, the hand-held device sends the results wirelessly to an iPad and they are displayed in an app. The sensors also have a colored coating to assign the data to the relevant tooth contact. For hygiene reasons, a new pressure sensor is required for each patient on each visit to the dentist – at a cost of around eight euros.
Bausch is an old hand when it comes to occlusion test materials. His father and grandfather founded the business in 1953, and it quickly became an international world market leader for articulating paper and films. The company currently employs 45 staff in Germany and exports its test materials to 120 countries.
Bausch came up with the idea of a digital alternative to articulating paper years ago. “I was ahead of my time, though, because the technology for our specific requirements wasn’t even available at that point,” he recalls. Bausch then became aware of the work InnovationLab and Heidelberg were doing in the field of printed electronics and got in touch. “We had a clear idea of what our OccluSense was to look like and it’s turned out to be a superb product. The project was enjoyable, too, because the teamwork was excellent and highly professional at every stage – from product development and optimization all the way through to series production,” he enthuses.
OccluSense is just one of around 30 ideas for applications that Heidelberg and InnovationLab have already implemented. These include smart mattresses that cater more effectively to the needs of patients with bedsores, car seats that recognize different people and automatically adjust to the driver profile in the on-board computer, and a sensor skin that ensures robots interact safely with humans by teaching them how to feel. Smart shelves that report when they are empty or products are in the wrong place, pressure-sensitive flooring for building automation or app-based footfall analyses in supermarkets, and diapers with moisture sensors for patients who are incontinent have also already been produced or are under development.
“The technology is both sensitive and robust, which opens up huge scope for new business ideas,” underlines Römermann, adding that Heidelberg is a supportive partner. “Anyone who is interested in our services can work with us throughout the process of turning their ideas into reality – from product to app development – but we can also simply produce and supply the required functional film,” says the printed electronics expert.
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Managing Director of Dr. Jean Bausch GmbH & Co. KG
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