Smart Inks: A Tsunami On The Horizon

It’s usually the printing presses and other hardware that fire hype and imagination in the printing world. This is partly because we can actually watch the latest print machinery at work and (often) admire the convergence of design and function as the big iron cranks out the product.

Meanwhile, the less accessible chemistry of ink is often all but ignored, in spite of chemistry’s place as a core driver of progress in the world of printing. Ink is, after all, the material that gets printed and the visual information it represents is the whole point of the process in the first place.

Yet here in the 21st century, the advent of digital technology and variable data marking has breathed new life into ink development. Customization, serialization and watermarking have been driving the demand for faster drying formulations in a rapidly changing landscape. In mainstream graphics, printing for example, this has meant a movement toward UV curable and latex inks. This steady progress is a somewhat predictable continuum that moves along much like traditional printing.

But there is also some relatively wild stuff going on in specialty packaging. Quietly, whiz bang chemical technology is driven by the emergence of a global “active and intelligent packaging” trend. In these scenarios, inks are increasingly called upon to do more than create letters and images on paper. As a result, inks are getting smarter, and they are capable of multi-tasking as commerce becomes more complex. Inks can perform additional functions, such as interactively supplying instant data on manufacturing and shipping conditions across a product life cycle.

Stoked with molecular intellect and integrated with RFID technology and electronics, inks quietly monitor supply chains, deter theft, apprehend counterfeiters and communicate with digital devices. These new formulations are responsive and vigilant, able to interact with both machines and consumers, as if they are uncredited tech walk-ons in The Matrix or The Minority Report.

(Of course, those films were science fiction, right? Right?)

Here are some of the latest developments:

Upward Trend Predicted for Food-Safe And Verification Inks

According to a recent Smithers Pira report, printing food packaging with safe inks represents an expanding niche within the even larger growth sector of the $221 billion of food packaging industry. As product contamination prevention continues to receive attention from brands and consumers, demand for food-grade inks has increased and is likely to continue to do so, according to the research.

Smithers Pira’s “Future of Printing for Food Packaging to 2021” study predicts 6% annual growth for food-safe inks (in volume) through 2021. The report notes that although high material costs have thus far put a drag on converter adaptation to some degree, pressure from the FDA and international regulatory agencies for food-safe packaging will likely overcome that resistance.

It is interesting that the escalating need for food-safe formulations is in part driven by the industry’s own cost-cutting measures. According to report author Dr. Sean Smyth, food-grade inks act as something of an antidote to the problem of contamination caused by reductions in the gauge of packaging material barrier films, which decrease the films’ ability to protect against ink migration.

Beyond the passive attribute of non-toxicity, at least one new ink is able to provide food safety process verification. Chromatic Technologies Inc. just announced a new product that confirms that a package has been successfully treated via high pressure processing (HPP - a relatively new technology that kills bacteria and prolongs shelf life). Similar to inkjet-printed codes that validate sterilization, CTI’s new ink prints clear but shows a color following HPP. This “smart” ink “knows” when it has been processed. According to the company, the chemistry is also embedded with an anti-counterfeiting feature.

The new ink is currently available in water-based and UV-curable formulations.

Similarly, Sun Chemical is rolling out a new near infrared (NIR) contamination detection system that leverages a special infrared emitting fluorescent dye. Integrated with a NIR sensing device on a food processing line, the technology can uncover plastic fragments and other contaminants.

Even more radical is a temperature sensitive RFID tag/inks technology developed in Japan that can report the temperature history of a food, pharmaceutical or other heat sensitive product. Tokyo-based NiGK Corp’s TEMPiDENCE technology pairs a reactive ink with a conductive paste and an RFID “antenna” printed with destructible conductive ink. The printed tag provides a warning when a temperature threshold is reached during shipping or storage. NiGK Corp. is developing the technology for chocolates, wine and paint labeling applications.

Smart Packaging Driven By Security

While smart packaging can refer to a wide range of brand marketing initiatives, the most urgent applications at this point are in the area of security, safety and supply chain verification. The demand is particularly robust in pharmaceutical and healthcare companies, which spend millions fighting counterfeiting and enabling continuous supply chain traceability. While the state of the art is very much in flux, the range of solutions involves a shifting combination of conductive plastics and miniaturized electronic components integrated with specialized inks printed on film, foil, paper or glass.

Contributing to the challenge is a web of regulations regarding drug packaging, which specify exactly which components of vials and other drug containers can be printed. One promising solution to this particular challenge was just announced by VideoJet Technologies, a major supplier of coding, marking and printing solutions. The company has introduced V539, a fluorescing ink visible under UV light. The formula is engineered with a dual set of dyes: one fluorescent and one visible. These components display machine readable or human readable codes respectively. The V539 inks instantly produce a red fluorescent code under UV light so that codes can be captured and recorded on high speed production lines.

These specialty formulations are also used to prevent theft of high end cosmetics.

Custom Pre-Printed and Tamper Proof Tape Technology Also On the Uptick
According to a new report by Future Marketing Insights, the pre-printed tape market is also looking at significant growth in the foreseeable future. Beyond the obvious aesthetic branding benefits, pre-printed tape cuts down on theft by thwarting opening and resealing and in some scenarios, eliminating the need to print cartons altogether. Within this emerging market, digital print production methods are likely to be the fastest growing application as brands seek to constantly freshen their messaging. However, FMI also predicts continued growth opportunities in litho, flexo and even screen printed tamper proof tapes.

The greatest growth for the next decade is predicted for Asia Pacific, with slightly less expansion in North America and slow but steady increases in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. The full report is available from FMI.

What is an Ink? The Paradigm Shift on the Horizon
Inks will continue to get smarter as electronic components continue to miniaturize. The distinction between what is printing ink and what is a printable electronic component has already been blurred and is likely to become more so.
Bearing in mind that some circuit boards are still screen printed, consider that the OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diodes) technology deployed high resolution digital devices, such as high end televisions and mobile devices, is printed on an inkjet. This technology is essentially a printable RGB color television, but would we call OLED’s inks? OLED matrices will soon be printable on even large format, flexible substrates, which will mean yet another quantum change across the visual communications business.

It is pointless to worry about nomenclature when a technology tsunami is on the horizon. Somewhere across this spectrum of fast-moving change are opportunities for those willing to identify them and go for the gold.


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