The “internet of things” is one of those odd phrases that can mean many things and nothing at the same time. On one hand, it describes a future that is rapidly becoming the present, with all sorts of objects—from televisions and watches to cups and streetlights—able to connect to the internet. On the other hand, it is used a marketing tactic by chip-makers and networking companies eager to sell their wares. Between 26 and 50 million “things” will be connected to the internet by 2020, according to various forecasts.
But not all of those things need an internet connection, points out Davor Sutija, who runs Thinfilm, a Norwegian company working in the field of printable electronics. They don’t all need IP addresses. All they need is the ability to pass on the information they gather to something that can process the information, often via a connection to the internet. “Smart” objects only need to be smart enough to do that job.
That insight is informing a new approach to electronic design. Think of it as disposable electronics at the edges of web.
Unlike traditional electronics, which are made of silicon wafers mounted on boards etched with circuitry, a new generation of printable (and sometimes bendable) electronics are made in the same way as a newspaper—by depositing an ink-like substance on a thin film (hence the name) made of a type of plastic commonly used for soft drink bottles. The result is a sheet of electronics that can be over a kilometer long, is cheap and flexible, and can be embedded into everything from clothes to food packaging. Thinfilm’s electronic tags cost between 2 and 5 cents each when bought in bulk, says Sutija. That’s anywhere from a sixth to a tenth of the cost of a traditional microcontroller (a low-power computer chip).
Some of these, such as electronics on packaging, communicate their information visually, for example by changing color or using a small display screen. Others, which need to connect to machines, use near-field-communication (NFC), a radio standard that allows data transfer. Using NFC, your bag of lettuce could signal to your smart fridge that it’s past its best. The uses for these simple, single-purpose electronics are endless. Clothes in stores could be fitted with reliable, discreet anti-theft trackers. Readable electronics on visitor badges at hospitals or universities could allow access to those with the right clearance. A tag on a perishable or valuable shipment could ensure it remains at a consistent temperature.
In patient monitoring, the electronics could even make human communications more effective. For instance, cheap, embedded electronics could detect when a package is opened, to help doctors ensure patients are taking their pills. Or the technology can be embedded in adult diapers to make sure they’re changed promptly without requiring an elderly patient to ask for a change.
Sutija says that his company’s technology can do all this, and do it relatively cheaply. None of these things need an embedded internet connection or an IP address—so the electronics that place them on the “internet of things” can actually be quite simple.
If you need 40,000 transistors on a chip, you’re better off going to ARM or one of the other more established chip-designers. But if your needs are more basic—a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand—then printed circuitry should do the trick. Indeed, even big chip-makers are realizing that the industry may be coming to the end of Moore’s Law, which posits that the number of transistors on a chip will double roughly every 18 months.
Still, the printable electronics revolution is probably some time away. Thinfilm has so far spent over $150 million in development but generated little by way of profit (pdf). Ynvisible, another company working on printable electronics, launched a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign this year with a low target specifically so that it could interest people in the technology. “I wouldn’t say there is yet a clear success case in the industry,” Ynvisible product manager Manuel Camara said at the time. But Sutija remains optimistic, and says that Thinfilm will be shipping his product in “seven-figure volumes” to its first major customers starting in August.