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By Steve Baker | Nov 30, 2018
Flexible substrates for smart wearables

The multi-billion-dollar industry of smart wearables is becoming ubiquitous and witnessing revolutionary developments each day. From smart tattoos that track sunlight exposure to smart insoles that monitor your footsteps, smart technological advancements are clearly pushing the boundaries of innovation. As the wearable technology industry is still at a nascent stage of its development curve, the consortium of functional printing professionals including the technical printers, designers, engineers, and system integrators, are working together to investigate new processes, materials, technologies, and testing methods.

Aside from the dominant world of smart watches, there has been a significant growth and interest in smart clothing, electronics, and sensor solutions. Some of the common considerations that need to be addressed before developing a wearable solution include:

  • Biocompatibility - Since most wearables come in direct or close contact with skin, biocompatibility is of paramount importance to ensure user safety. Depending on the intended use of the device, compounds in wearable substrates and construction layers can potentially be exposed to sweat, rain, humidity, sunscreens, and insect repellants. A comprehensive understanding of the interaction of various external factors is crucial towards eliminating unwanted risks such as skin sensitization, allergic reactions, and irritation. While there are no industry standards governing biocompatibility across all wearable devices, ISO 10993 provides a framework for wearable medical devices.
  • Power management - Effective power management still remains a significant hurdle in developing wearable solutions. Thin and compact batteries often translate to shorter battery life and companies are continuously struggling to extend the battery life for devices to last at least one cycle of usage. While space is a huge constraint when working with small and lightweight devices, companies are harvesting energy by employing solar cells or powering batteries using the body movement and body heat of the wearer. Companies are actively trading Wi-Fi connectivity with Bluetooth communication modules for efficient power consumption and pivoting towards wireless power supplies through inductors. For most wearable garments intended for long-term use, the batteries must be easily replaceable or rechargeable.
  • Flexibility and stretchability - Smart wearables, especially garments, are susceptible to a great deal of stretching. Flexibility, the basic form factor of wearables, has made flexible printed electronics be actively pursued as an alternative to costly silver threads and yarns sewn into apparels. Depending on the final application, wearable substrates need to strike the right balance between flexibility, stretchability, and stability. In addition to experimenting with new substrates, the industry is currently leveraging medical-grade materials including polyether-based thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), polyester-based TPU, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and fabrics such as spandex, nylon, elastane, and cotton. Functional inks are often printed on flexible substrates and as the user wears or moves with the garment, there is a certain amount of stretch that occurs. Therefore, inks need to exhibit acceptable change in resistance with repeatable stretch and recovery cycles.
  • Sealing - Conductive epoxies, typically used to apply components on to circuits, are often not a feasible solution when dealing with wearable applications, as they tend to break under stress. Hence, applying additional components such as surface-mount LEDs and active PCBs can be very challenging. The ability to incorporate electronic components smoothly into apparels whilst ensuring strong adhesion during bending, creasing, and flexing is key to the success of smart wearables.

 In addition, wearables intended for long-term use must be safe to submerge under water without damaging the circuitry, and physically endure multiple wash cycles. Achieving a water-tight seal and protecting the power source from environmental factors is vital for ensuring optimal performance and durability of the device. For electronic equipment, Ingress Protection (IP) rating specifies the degree of protection from solids and liquids including dust and water. Whether it is fusing stretchable materials with thermoplastic-adhesives backing or applying hot-melt adhesives to polyester circuits, thermal bonding is one of the most common sealing approaches in wearable solutions. Pressure sensitive adhesive (PSA) lamination is another approach that requires a medical-grade adhesive to apply a patch directly to the skin of the user. TPU overlaminates, printable insulators, and PET overlaminates are often used for sealing and potting.

The wearable technology industry is migrating towards a “smart system”, a world where all devices from head to toe communicate with each other to create a single ecosystem. As existing technologies and processes evolve, new norms, standards, and specifications for the industry will gradually develop. With a promising future in sight, the widespread adoption and integration of smart wearables in our daily lives is almost inevitable.

By Gerry Gallagher | Nov 15, 2018
GMN sells SuperGraphics to employees

Over the years, GMN has celebrated many triumphs with SuperGraphics, our large format graphics and signage company, including the invention of the bus wrap and claiming the Guinness World Record for largest mural ever made. The SuperGraphics business has long served as a vital part of the GMN business and we have deeply enjoyed the work we produced and the customers we collaborated with in the process. While focusing on and expanding our core business, GMN has decided to sell SuperGraphics to an experienced group of current employees who will foster a bright future for the company.

To learn more about this transaction, read our press release here.

By Steve Baker | Nov 6, 2018
High-volume technical printing equipment

In this second blog of our series on high-volume technical printing, we will be discussing the various screen printing equipment options GM Nameplate (GMN) has available for technical printing. We will examine the different attributes of each type of printing press and assess how they can influence your projects. If you missed our first blog in this series, we encourage you to take a moment to read it here to gain a preliminary understanding of GMN’s technical printing methods and their implications for high-volume programs.

As previously mentioned, there are two main screen printing processes used by GMN for technical printing – sheet-fed and roll-to-roll – and as we’ve already established, roll-to-roll printing is better suited for high-volume technical printing projects. The reasons for why this is will become clearer as we go through the characteristics of GMN’s printing equipment.

Before getting into the specifics, an important concept to understand in general about all the presses is that the run rate is set by the dryer capacity. The attributes of the dryer as well as the project influence the run rate that can be realized. For example, functional inks often require longer to cure, therefore if a technical printing program utilizing functional inks is run on a press with limited drying capacity, it will need to go through the dryer at a slower speed to properly cure. However, if the same project was run on a press with a large drying capacity, it would be able to run at faster speeds since it would be in the dryer for longer. For every new project, the drying parameters must be developed according to that project’s specifications, which ultimately determines speed.

Sheet-fed presses

As with all screen printing equipment, the distinct capabilities and constraints offered by each of GMN’s sheet-fed printing presses determine the viability of the equipment for a potential project. Sheet-fed presses yield varying print area dimensions, for example, from 22” x 30” to 48” x 98”. Another critical feature to be aware of is the run rate for these presses, which on average can range from 160 – 225 impressions per hour. Finally, the dryers that accompany the sheet-fed printing presses at GMN include thermal UV dryers.

Roll-to-roll presses

For roll-to-roll printing, GMN employs four presses with varied capabilities that enable them to fulfill an assortment of technical printing project requirements.

  1. Via printing

    The most noteworthy feature about two of the screen printing presses utilized by GMN for roll-to-roll technical printing is the presses ability to print vias (also known as through-hole printing). When printing vias, after the vias are lasered into the material, ink is then printed on both sides of the roll, forcing the ink through the vias to create a circuit. But the pushing of the ink through the holes leaves excess ink behind on the print bed. If using the sheet-fed method, the operator would have to clean the print bed after every pass, adding additional steps and time to the process. However, GMN’s presses eliminate the need for this added step because they have blotter paper positioned on top of the print bed to absorb all the leftover ink. This blotter paper advances along with the roll of material to ensure that the ink doesn’t smear as the sheet moves forward. In general, these presses print one color at a time, maintain a print area of 20” x 20”, and can accomplish tolerances around .007”. Using UV and thermal dryers approximately four meters in length, the run rate for these presses is about 500-800 impressions per hour.

  2. Tight tolerance printing

    Another roll-to-roll printing press at GMN also only prints a single color at a time, yet it has a print area of 19” x 31”. But the major advantage of this press is printing parts with extremely tight tolerances. This press can reach tolerances within .001” – .002” of the original specifications. To produce these tolerance levels, the press utilizes optical registration cameras to repeatedly establish precise registration for each part and attain the most accurate stacking of ink layers. The machine first pulls the printing image in and then adjusts the screen to achieve a careful stack-up tolerance. In addition, this press uses a 20-foot tower dryer. Tower dryers are beneficial because they make efficient use of their space by having the material serpentine up and down across the body of the equipment, allowing for the parts to stay in the dryer for longer and run at faster speeds. With these elements working together, our tight tolerance printing press offers a run rate of around 200 – 300 impressions per hour.

  3. Efficient run rates & multi-color printing

    The last press at GMN’s disposal offers a print area of 18” x 19.5” and meets tolerances within .007” – .010”. This press’ most significant benefits include its two print stations and substantial drying capacity, which allows it to produce parts at a much higher speed. With both a 40-foot and a 60-foot tower dryer, this press employs dryers that are much larger than our other presses. Again, the tower dryers allow for each part to stay in the dryer for longer, therefore permitting the part to run through the process at a faster rate. The other advantage of this press is that it’s a two-color press. The printing process begins by laying down the first color, followed by the punching of a fiducial next to the image for registration, and then the sheet runs through the first tower dryer. Next, utilizing the registration punch to align with the first ink layer, a second color can be laid down, ending with the sheet going through the second tower dryer. These two capabilities are what make our final roll-to-roll technical printing press the fastest print line at GMN with a run rate of 800 – 1,000 impressions per hour.

When comparing the characteristics of the sheet-fed presses to the roll-to-roll presses, it is apparent why roll-to-roll printing is more suited for high-volume technical printing projects. Not only can these presses achieve much higher run rates, but they can also produce parts at much tighter tolerances and accomplish efficient through-hole printing. With our selection of technical printing equipment, GMN aims to provide our customers with the printing technology that best fits their project’s specific needs. GMN is equipped to accommodate technical printing projects with a vast array of requirements and volumes ranging from low to high. To learn more about our technical printing capabilities, click here.

Lauren Rowles, GMN
By Lauren Rowles | Nov 1, 2018
GMN Halloween

At GM Nameplate, we believe that companies that have fun together, thrive together. Every year, GMN employees have a great time getting into spirit when Halloween rolls around. Once again, GMN celebrated Halloween with style and enthusiasm by showcasing some amazing team and individual costumes, as well as inventive decorations. We hope you enjoy this peek into a couple of the costumes that were featured.

Halloween celebration 2018Halloween 2018