Cal Poly

Canvas Magazine Cover

How It Was Made

Dr. Malcolm G. Keif, Professor Cal Poly State University

Cal Poly is a university well known for its Graphic Communication (GrC) Department. Cal Poly's GrC Department has an active advisory board on which Carl Joachim, VP Marketing for Ricoh Americas Corporation, serves as a board member. Last August, Carl and his team suggested we do something big to jumpstart Cal Poly's Master of Science degree initiative in Printed Electronics and Functional Imaging.

It all started with a phone call from Carl: "Malcolm, we advertise in Canvas Magazine and we'd like you and the Cal Poly team of students and faculty to come up with a clever printed electronic cover for the February issue of Canvas."

That phone call started the journey… one that took less than six months to complete thanks to a cooperative team of industry professionals. The results are what you have in your hands: the world's first interactive, entirely printed, electronic magazine cover. Let me go out on a limb here… this is the start of something big. You may think this cover is merely a novelty or perhaps simplistic, but we believe printed electronics will change the face of printed materials… maybe not for every print market, but certainly for many.

How was the cover made? Let me walk you through the process. First, a team of faculty and students investigated which options were available for creating a printed electronic cover. At Cal Poly we have been studying printed electronics seriously for about two years now so we had a general feel for the various options for completing our task.

Would we look to electroluminescence? While this was certainly an attractive solution, the power requirements were too challenging for a magazine cover. Electroluminescent displays, starting to appear in point-of-purchase displays and out-of-home advertising, are better suited for larger DC systems and 110V AC systems.

Electrophoretic displays, such as those used in book readers like the Kindle™, were also a consideration, but the challenges and expense of producing an electrophoretic cover at Cal Poly seemed daunting at best. Plus, "that" had already been done on the cover of the now famous October 2008 issue of Esquire Magazine. Considering the conventional logic board, a display that isn't printed (as we think of the term), and numerous button cell batteries, that issue didn't resemble what I consider printed electronics, though it was impressive. Our goal was to make the first cover incorporating fully printable display technologies. We were looking for a proven technology that could be done with a limited budget and a short timeframe – something that we could demonstrate at Cal Poly and other printers could do if they devoted their attention and resources to mastering the process.

We determined that electrochromic technology made the most sense for this application. While currently limited in color selection, electrochromics clearly had the power consumption requirements we needed at the budget we had to work with. We simply couldn't afford the real estate or expense to string several batteries together to drive a larger, flashier display. An electrochromic display was the logical choice for a magazine cover.

Electrochromism is the property of materials to temporarily change color when an electrical charge is applied. In this case, we have a dried ink film that changes colors when current is passed through the ink. We selected NTERA's NanoChromics™ technology – the leading producer of electrochromic ink systems – because of their proven technology and established network of printers in the United States.

Next we needed a design. We decided that one compelling aspect of the solution would be "user interaction" – engaging the reader with the media. This is something that printed electronics can deliver over traditional print media. Like everything in print, we had to design within the limitations of the process. In this case, we needed one-color artwork (more a limitation of budget than of process) with relatively simple second color display features that would be revealed after initiating one or more switches. We knew the project would be screen-printed because the commercial availability of inks is largely limited to screen inks at this time. With the help of Cal Poly students Sterling Rose, Bryce Beatty, and Michael Shedd, we came up with the maze drawn into a journal. We knew that we needed a simple way to initiate the first maze solution (the dog-eared corner) and once the reader was engaged, we needed a couple of other switches to reveal additional information (coins).

Canvas publisher Mark Potter advised us that this issue would focus on advancements in the printing industry. The cover would say Take a Look at us Now! We chose to make the cover all line art to ensure we weren't going beyond the capabilities of the process. The design allowed us to show off the capabilities of the display technology and engage the user, while offering simple, compelling support to the editorial in this issue.

Sourcing and managing the cover was complex. There were so many factors to consider that several times I pondered if it would all come together. All printing projects are challenging, but working with complex materials, processes, and very tight tolerances, proved to be demanding. We quickly realized we could not produce the volume of covers needed on Cal Poly's one-color ATMA screen press. We needed a commercial screen-printer experienced with extremely tight register and process control for printing on a roll-to-roll press. We turned to SI-CAL in Westborough, Massachusetts, an experienced printer of the NTERA display system. They have some of the best equipment and processes for printing the multiple layers needed for the electrochromic system.

We also needed a power source. We initially explored a printed photovoltaic cover but that was too ambitious for this project. We also looked at printing the battery inline. That is feasible but required much more research than we had time for. Further, we needed a proven system so we could focus on producing the display technology, not the battery. We selected Blue Spark Technologies, producers of 1.5V printed batteries that we attached to the carrier material. Blue Spark offered a commercially available solution ideal for this project.

Starting in mid-October, we kicked-off the implementation phase of the project. We had weekly meetings to plan the entire project. We then brought in other key players. FujiFilm Sericol provided the black and grey graphic inks. DuPont Teijin Films™ provided the heat-stable polyester. Spraylat provided the conductive silver ink. Finally, Web Industries, Baril Corporation, and Adhesives Research brought in their expertise with slitting, laminating and die-cutting, and conductive tapes respectively. David Hollstien a Templeton, California consultant provided electrical engineering consulting. At Cal Poly, we designed the cover, built the digital file, sourced and managed the project, printed the initial prototypes, and of course, Cal Poly students did a lot of attaching batteries to carriers! Bennett Graphics of Atlanta, Georgia then tipped the polyester carrier sheets onto the magazine.

Now, what you really want to know is how we printed the polyester carrier. It was entirely screen-printed. Film thickness control is essential to achieve proper functionality. So, while we are testing the use of other printing processes, portions may be limited to screen-printing because of the relatively thin ink films of most other commercial printing processes. Thoroughly drying each layer is also critical to ensure optimum display performance.

This cover was a 10-color job. It was reverse printed (back side build) on DuPont Teijin Melinex™ ST505 polyester, a heat-stable clear film. The "color" sequence was:

  1. FujiFilm Sericol PolyScreen Black (with no carbon or iron oxide to minimize the risk of shorting the circuit)
  2. FujiFilm Sericol PolyScreen Grey (to match the display background)
  3. Spraylat Conductive Silver XCSD-006N
  4. PEDOT transparent conductive ink
  5. NTERA Passivator
  6. NTERA Chromaticized Segment (active electrode)
  7. NTERA Separator
  8. NTERA Common (counter electrode)
  9. NTERA Conductive Carbon
  10. NTERA Electrolyte

After printing, the cover was laminated, die cut and scored, and the battery attached. The artwork was built entirely at Cal Poly in Adobe Illustrator CS4, including the functional display layers and silver traces. Registration tolerances from layer to layer were built to 0.010" though the final product is certainly much tighter than that. Since many of these inks are either transparent or white, multiple registration marks had to be carefully designed for ease of monitoring process control. Film positives and screens were made at Cal Poly for prototyping and also at Si-Cal for their production run.

So what is next? Well, first we are all going to take a deep breath and rest for a moment. Okay, now that that is done, at Cal Poly we are ready to tackle our next project – the development of our Master of Science degree in Printed Electronics and Functional Printing. Look for our first coursework to begin in Fall 2012. Our industry partners are actively working on other compelling projects as well as looking for additional applications to further the commercial adoption of printed electronics.

I'd like to give a big "shout-out" to Carl, Scott, and Mike of Ricoh Americas, Mark at Canvas Magazine, Brent at BOC Design, Cal Poly's faculty and students, especially Dr. Xiaoying Rong, Kristina Colelli, and the many industry partners who came together on this project in a very short timeframe to make history: the world's first interactive printed electronic magazine cover.

*Photos courtesy of NTERA and Si-Cal.

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© 2015 California Polytechnic State University Printed Electronics and Functional Imaging
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407