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Plastics electronics and packaged consumer products: the future is closer than you think.

Plastics electronics is a sector seemingly long on potential but as yet short on exposure. Solar cells and the still-awaited electronic newspapers are perhaps the most widely recognised applications but are really just the tip of the iceberg. Consumer science consultancy Faraday has put together a report urging brand managers and packaging technologists for consumer products to learn more about the significance of plastics electronics. Its author, Dr Laurence Hogg, discusses here what plastics electronics could mean to us all in the future and why we should start planning now.

Plastic electronics--also known as organic electronics, polymer electronics or printed electronics--is a technology basing electronics on polymers instead of inorganic conductors such as the copper or silicon used for traditional electronics.

This new brand of electronics made from synthetic, carbon-based materials is an area of major investment in the electronics community and the end-game of current R & D is to be able to print electronic devices which currently require electronic assembly. This means cheap day-to-day electronic gadgets featuring moving screen displays, sensors and even computers. You could get a mobile phone printed on your corn flakes packet!

At present, the 'plastics electronics industry' is making a limited number of specialised electronic components. Few consumer products that integrate organic components are currently being made. This is set to change very rapidly, though, as the technology emerges from the laboratory and the electrical goods companies lead the charge to integration into consumer products.

So what will packaged consumer products (FMCG) look like in this not-too-distant future of cheap, reproducible printed electronic gadgets? Plastics electronics has the potential to provide new ways for consumers to interact with the product and brand which are probably only limited by our imagination. Imagine a future where the kinds of electronic functionality we associate with today's electronic gadgets, like mobile phones, media players, netbooks and so on are integrated into everyday FMCG consumer products and packs.

Technologically, the only limitation is the development of plastics logic circuits that are fast enough in computing terms. At the moment they are just a bit too slow--too slow for immediate use--but, on the basis of the speed of advancement to date, this will change quickly and at that point we will be able to do virtually anything with products and packs.


The sceptical will point to RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Technology) and its ultimate lack of impact on FMCG and packaging. Let's not fool ourselves, RFID has found plenty to apply itself to outside packaging and has served its purpose in the FMCG world without the need to provide additional functionality to the consumer. Plastics electronics in comparison to RFID is a tsunami compared to a large wave--technologically and through its timing in relation to consumer trends.

So what are the driving forces that will make plastics electronics in the FMCG market inevitable? Here, we have to consider societal trends that tell us about how consumers use the internet, how they communicate and how they buy goods on-line.

However much we think we are a connected society at present, this will fade into insignificance in a future of 24/7 connection to the internet. The technology is here to make this happen in the next few years, and is combined with an almost insatiable desire by us as consumers for electronic intelligence.

Just look at the trends. Marks and Spencer launched a 'back to school jacket' last year which integrated an iPod into the garment. It cost just 40 [pounds sterling]. You can buy a 'device' which is a watch, camera, MP3 player and waterproof jacket for less than 200 [pounds sterling]. It's got no mechanical parts, it's all electronic, including the watch face.

Another great example is the fitness game for Nintendo Wii which provides you with a virtual personal fitness coach. Launched in Japan in December 2007, Wii Fit sold one million units in less than a month, followed by 232,890 sales in the first week of the UK Spring 2008 launch. By May 2008, 25 million units had been sold worldwide, equivalent to 1.75 billion [pounds sterling] in six months. Are you able to match such performance for products from your business?

The UK telecoms regulatory body, Ofcom, reported that between 2002 and 2007 the time spent talking and texting on our mobile phones doubled and time spent on PCs and lap-top computers quadrupled. On-line advertising spend was up by almost 40 per cent year-on-year reaching 2.8 billion [pounds sterling] in 2007 and more money was spent on internet advertising in 2007 than the combined advertising spend on UK television. The report also showed that texting was more popular than email among children, with 62 per cent of 12-15 year olds sending an instant message.

Similarly, a study by management guru, Deloitte, reported as early as 2007 that 62 per cent of consumers read product reviews on the internet, with 82 per cent of these saying it directly influenced their purchasing, 58 per cent of UK consumers said they would abandon a holiday purchase following negative reviews, 51 per cent for consumer electronics and 40 per cent for communications products.

What does all this mean? It means we are becoming a society highly integrated into gadgetry, which is close to being connected 24/7 and one which will barely do any buying without referring to reviews and opinions of others. The result of which is that products are under constant and intense scrutiny and only those offering real and exceptional value will succeed.

Deloitte refers to it as 'living in the glasshouse.' When this happens, consumers will effectively be marketing products to other consumers and the seller or brand owner has very little impact on the process. As a result, brands will need to create a real point of difference, offering consumers something completely new and innovative with added functionality. Plastics electronics could provide the answer.

Projecting forward, to when fabrication technology has matured to the point where the devices are cheap and can be printed on to packs in a roll-to-roll or ink jetted process, there is virtually nothing we won't be able to do. A pack that opens and closes itself at the touch of a button--you can have it! A pack that sends you a text when its expiry date is a week away--you got it!


There are a million and one things we could do with the technology to make smart and intelligent packs and products. So much so that it is our imagination that is the limiting factor, not the technology. Therein lies the problem. How can you think of the things you've never seen before? How could you have predicted texting as the new means of communicating at the birth of mobile telephony, rather than just wait for it to emerge? We have a similar issue in FMCG and plastics electronics.

It is critical that anything new is in line with consumers' wants and needs, and preferably driven by these wants and needs. But consumers don't know what they want. Henry Ford once famously said: "If I'd asked what people wanted, they would have said a faster horse."

Consumers are rarely interested in how their problems are solved; they are more conscious about which of their problems will be solved. Research which Faraday is conducting is aimed at providing the means whereby brand owners can get to grips with totally new ideas in a structured, consumer-led way rather than trying to use the technology in a pack or product just for the sake of it. The methods under development are based on world-leading academic studies. In order to develop a better understanding of how plastics electronics may contribute in meeting and satisfying consumers' demands, as part of the 'Plastic Electronics and the FMCG Consumer' report Faraday devised a series of novel consumer surveys. The aim was to reveal current consumer needs and classify them in a systemic manner so that valuable insights are generated.


In order to envisage how new plastics electronics on-pack applications could look, Faraday has set out some examples of what could be possible with plastics electronics technology applied to FMCG packaging. They are not intended to show design directions, current developments or to showcase potential products--just intended to stimulate the imagination.

Smart ketchup bottle: A smart ketchup bottle which has three sensors printed on the side of the bottle: small, medium and large. The consumer touches one of the sensors and gets a different sized blob of ketchup. The bottle also has a sensor in the cap so it knows when it is over the plate to prevent any premature use of the sauce. This is a smart sauce bottle that controls the dose of the sauce and also prevents spillages.

Single product logos on groups of packs: Imagine a stack of beer cans or baked bean tins or coke bottles in the supermarket. Instead of the display being a mess of many small labels on each pack, there is a large logo covering the whole display. Each pack contributes a small part of the logo because it has built on to it a display and a sensor that tells the pack where it is in the stack relative to the other packs. When one pack/tin is removed, another drops in to take its place and the logo is re-established.



If FMCG brands are to survive in this brave new world, brand managers, marketing experts and packaging technologists need to start to understand the capabilities and current limitations of this new technology. And they need to develop the methods to provide the imagination and design capability to produce products and packs that do things no-one has ever seen before. All of this is part of the tsunami of plastics electronics and the connected consumer.

Armed with the right information and consumer insight, the FMCG industry should look forward to the growth of plastics electronics with excitement.

Faraday's Plastic Electronics and the FMCG Consumer report can be downloaded free of charge from www.


A multimedia web site has been produced by Quadrant EPP to provide information on the material properties and advantages of machinable Torlon polyamidelmide shapes. In addition to standard material information such as product specifications, basic application information and downloadable documentation, the new site, www.designwithtorlon. com, contains video elements covering topics like saw cutting, turning, milling and fly-cutting. Alongside the videos on material fabrication and machining procedures, Quadrant has introduced a series of video shorts modelled on a US talk show format that address design and performance concepts.


A new fluorinated polymer for organic electronics applications has been introduced by Solvay Solexis. The company does not go into any more detail about the nature of Solvene, but says it exhibits "a unique set of intrinsic piezo, pyro and ferro behaviour":

* Piezo: Solvene can convert mechanical stress energy into electrical energy and in reverse, can deform under an electric field (electrostriction).

* Pyro: Solvene can convert calorific energy into electrical energy, as temperature variation will change the dipole orientation and create a temporary electrical potential.

* Ferro: Solvene is an organic ferroelectric material exhibiting a large remanent polarisation, polarisation stability, low leakage for high resistivity, and short switching times. It is also intrinsically bi-stable, meaning it does not need a voltage to maintain its polarisation state.

Solvene also has an intrinsic high K constant, which offers a high charge with a low applied electric field and makes it suitable for transistors and capacitors.

Solvay says that because of its intrinsic properties Solvene does not need post treatment to be electrically active. It can therefore be processed by conventional techniques.
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Title Annotation:design
Comment:Plastics electronics and packaged consumer products: the future is closer than you think.(design)
Publication:British Plastics & Rubber
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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