Thursday, May 28, 2015

What Are Printed Electronics?

Printed electronics can refer to a wide range of techniques that are used to print electrical devices onto a substrate. A substrate is just the technical term for any substance that the printing process takes place on such as paper, glass, cover slips, etc. The techniques for printing electronics are still largely being developed. Some of the main techniques include screen printing[1], rotogravure[2], and inkjet.

Why use printers at all for electronics? Currently there are two main ways of prototyping a circuit, breadboards and printed circuit boards (PCB). They both have their own pros and cons. A breadboard allows for a cheap way to easily connect wires and different components. However the standard layout of a breadboard means that you must conform your parts to fit what you are given.[3] A PCB can be designed to suit the exact needs of the project you are working on. The manufacturing costs of the PCB are its downfall for hobbyists however. It can take weeks to have your order made and shipped to you or the use of potent chemicals if you wish to etch it yourself.[4] The ability to print electronics on demand combines the best qualities of a breadboard and PCB. They are cheap to print, easy to add parts to, and can be revised very quickly. Printing electronics is becoming to the electronics industry what 3D printing has become to the mechanical industry.

This blog will focus on the inkjet printing method for it is the cheapest and easiest method for hobbyists to get started with. Inkjet printers work mainly by one of two ways. The first being a “Thermal Bubble” where a current is first sent through tiny resistors in the print head. These resistors give off heat and vaporize some of the nearby ink. This vaporization of the ink creates a gas bubble which, as it expands, pushes ink out of the nozzle in the form of tiny droplets. When the bubble eventually pops, a vacuum is created in its absence which refills the nozzle with ink.[5]

The second method is known as a “Piezoelectric” printer. Piezoelectricity is a material property where if a mechanical stress is applied, an electric potential is created. The opposite is also true, if a piezoelectric material is exposed to a change in electric potential energy, then its volume will change.[6] Piezoelectric printers utilize this property by having piezoelectric crystals in the print head’s ink reservoir. When a voltage is applied to these crystals they deform and expel tiny ink droplets out of the nozzle. [5]


[1]          “Screen printing,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 27-May-2015.
[2]          “Rotogravure,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 23-May-2015.
[3]          “How to Use a Breadboard -” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 28-May-2015].
[4]          “How-To: Etch a single sided PCB,” Hackaday. .
[5]          “ - Online.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 28-May-2015].
[6]          “The Piezoelectric Effect - Piezoelectric Motors & Motion Systems.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 28-May-2015].


  1. What is the purpose of refilling the nozzle with ink in the "Thermal Bubble" method? And what is the print head?

    1. During the "Thermal Bubble" method a bubble is created which pushes the ink out of the nozzle onto the paper. After the ink is pushed out there is temporarily no ink left in the nozzle. The nozzle must be refilled with ink (with the help of the vacuum created from the burst bubble) before another bubble may be created to push the new ink out.

      The print head is the mechanical component in the printer that holds the thousands of nozzles for which ink is dispersed from. The print head is also different from the ink cartridge. The ink cartridge is simply the component that stores the ink.