CLEMSON — Imagine bandages that detect infections, flexible paper light bulbs that screw into a light socket or food containers that notify you of an allergen inside. Now imagine all of this technology is created on a printing press and that Clemson University is on the cusp of helping bring it to mainstream America.

Those technologies and Clemson’s expertise in helping produce them are at the root of a recently announced $75 million grant that the federal government hopes will put the U.S. on the forefront of flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) manufacturing.

Hybrid electronics produced on press at Clemson

Charles ‘Chip’ Tonkin (left), Steve Foulger and Liam O’Hara, examine flexible hybrid electronics produced on a Clemson press
Image Credit: Patrick Wright

Through an Obama administration initiative, the Nationwide Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a five-year grant has been awarded to the FlexTech Alliance, based in San Jose, California. The alliance is comprised of a consortium of industries and universities, including Clemson. Its charge is to research and develop advanced technologies and processes to put the U.S. on the cutting edge of next-generation manufacturing.

“We know the science and industry where we can bring real solutions to bear. There are only a couple of universities that have the capability to do this,” said Charles “Chip” Tonkin, director of the College of Business and Behavioral Science’s Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics, graphic communications chair and a founding member of the FHE proposal for the grant. “This is the first time Clemson has been part of an NNMI grant and the implications to the university and the area could be huge.”

Collaborating with Tonkin on the grant application were Steve Foulger, Clemson’s Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies (COMSET), departments of materials science and engineering and bioengineering, and Liam O’Hara of graphic communications.

“The significance of the Sonoco Institute’s role in this is difficult to overstate,” said Foulger. “Right now, one can’t even imagine the limitless uses for flexible hybrid technologies, and Clemson University is at the forefront of developing some of those uses.”

An institute within the College of Business and Behavioral Science, the Sonoco Institute is a national leader in combining the synergies of packaging design and graphic communications and one reason Clemson is considered one of the best at preparing students for careers in the packaging and graphic communications industries.

“Traditionally, when people think about what printing presses produce for the packaging industry, it’s about creating eye-catching wrapping for consumer goods,” said O’Hara. “But beyond color, we can also print conductive and functional inks to create electronic devices far more inexpensively than traditional manufacturing processes.”

hybrid antenna made on Clemson press

An energy-harvesting antenna produced on a press can pick up cell phone signals
Image Credit: Patrick Wright

The Sonoco Institute has already produced flexible hybrid devices such as capacitors, circuitry and diodes on its presses through grants from the FlexTech Alliance.

One of the keys to Clemson’s and the institute’s roles in this grant was the collaboration of the graphic communications, material science and packaging science programs. The expertise in print manufacturing and material science existed on campus, it just needed to be consolidated for the synergy to occur.

That happened when the College of Business and Behavioral Science, the College of Engineering and Science, COMSET and the university’s vice president of research helped fund a lab at the Sonoco Institute for these disciplines to be united.

“We got a big boost from engineering, business and the VP of research to help us advance this research and development,” Tonkin said. “It’s enabled us to make significant strides in flexible electronics, but we aren’t at the point of mass producing them. One of the charges that comes with this grant is for us to bridge the gap between research and manufacturing.”

Many products currently produced through traditional manufacturing processes can be re-created by printing them on plastic, thin glass, paper and fabric materials that bend. A few are medical devices, patches that monitor human performance, energy storage and harvesting devices, food safety, brand protection from piracy and imaging systems.

“The applications are endless. A basic example of one that’s already been created is pill medication packaging that can alert the doctor’s office as to whether a patient is taking his or her medication,” said Tonkin. “The next step, and the challenge for the consortium, is to develop and transfer these flexible electronics from the lab to the commercial market and make them affordable.”

Tonkin, O’Hara and Foulger said Clemson’s role in advancing this technology could eventually bring economic benefits to South Carolina.

“Clemson could become a global player in printing flexible hybrid electronics. This is an area we can excel in, and it offers us the potential to become a major player in developing these technologies in this part of the country,” Tonkin said. “Flexible hybrid electronics has many applications for South Carolina’s leading industries, including automotive, aerospace, medical and food safety, to name a few.”

Tonkin and his associates are quick to point out, the NNMI effort to get these technologies to a commercial-use level is in its infancy. “The initial funding is the tip of the iceberg on what it will take to mass produce these electronics for mainstream America,” Tonkin added. “It will take additional commitments from all those involved to realize how far this technology can take us.”