Subscribe to the latest news from the Nordic Labour Journal by e-mail. The newsletter is issued 9 times a year. Subscription is free of charge.

You are here: Home i In Focus i In focus 2014 i Technology changes working life i New production methods could revolutionise entire industries
New production methods could revolutionise entire industries

New production methods could revolutionise entire industries

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl, Thinfilm

Norwegian Thinfilm has just developed a revolutionary technology, printing electronics straight onto a plastic film at their plant in Swedish Linköping. It makes it possible to develop intelligent labels which can tell whether a product is being stored at the right temperature, and much more.

Thinfilm has become a symbol of the development towards what has become known as The Internet of Things. Publications like The Economist and Forbes have been queuing up to write about their technology of printing electronics. 

Adding computing power to products has been going on for a long time. Smartphones are veritable all-in-ones containing digital compasses, tape recorders, maps, games and cameras in addition to the basic function - being able to call people.

But the processors which make all these things possible are relatively expensive. Putting one of them on a milk carton just to be able to decide if it has been kept at the right temperature just doesn’t pay.


“There is already a market for labels that change colour if the temperature rises above a certain level. They only cost a couple of cents apiece. There are also sophisticated monitors which give you the entire history, but they cost ten dollars. We want to develop products which we can sell from 20 cent to a dollar,” says Christer Karlsson, Thinfilm’s Chief Technology Officer.

The information which can be stored in Thinfilm’s intelligent labels is so far not much - 20 bytes. But this is enough for a million different combinations if you for instance want to use the memory for a code which shows a product to be an original and not a pirated copy.

Thinfilm’s technology builds on classical printing technology. Instead of black, they use a kind of silver nitrate which is a conductor. By putting six different layers on top of each other on a plastic film, one single memory can be built and later combined with a sensor and a small display which is what Thinfilm then calls a system tag.

Christer Karlsson

“The difference from making processors using silicone technology is that you need ten billion dollars to build a new factory. Electronics companies have robots which can assemble 10,000 components in an hour. Our investment is one tenth of a thousand of that cost,” says Christer Karlsson, who has been with Thinfilm from the beginning.

200 million memories in one year

It has taken time - the company was founded in 1987, but now a shining new Kroenert printing press has been specially constructed to fit into Thinfilm’s Linköping space.

“Its capacity is 200 memories. Some might call this a very advanced pilot line, others might call it a fully functioning production plant,” says Jakob Nilsson, who is responsible for memory products at Thinfilm.

Thinfilm labSo far only one operator has been hired, Sacke Järvenpää, but the company is advertising for one more. Sacke Järvenpää takes out a container with liquid silver nitrate, which is surprisingly small considering the liquid must cover a 1,500 metre long roll of plastic film. But the liquid will be printed in a layer only 0,0000001 millimetres thick. Inside the machine the liquid will dry and then the process is repeated five times with four different liquids. 

“Out of these it is the ink containing the ferroelectric polymer which is the most interesting. It is being used in the active layer, and it is the ink we have spent the most time developing,” says Jakob Nilsson.

When one roll of plastic memories is finished - there is one million on each roll - each memory needs to be programmed with whatever information it should hold, and this is done in a special machine. The memories must also be mounted together with the other components. Using so-called NFC technology the system labels can communicate too. Using radio waves, enough energy can be sent for the labels to answer from shorter distances. The communication can happen for instance using a mobile telephone, which can then pass that information on to anywhere in the world.

Thinfilm 2

Unique head start

For now, Thinfilm is enjoying a unique head start in printed electronics. The market is limited to how many objects there are in the world where adding a certain amount of intelligence would improve the product. If these objects were to increase in value by only one percent, this would represent 100 billion dollars. 

“Two of the innovations which have had the greatest impact on humanity are the printed press and the transistor. We combine the two by printing logic onto our system products,” says Jacob Nilsson.

How this will impact on working life is almost impossible to predict. But a world where billions of objects can communicate with one another is both promising and frightening.


Receive Nordic Labour Journal's newsletter nine times a year. It's free.

This is themeComment