When people think of IoT technology they usually think of silicon based sensors made by semiconductor companies. These types of sensors can be found tracking data on airplane engines, wind turbines, medical devices, and many more internet connected devices. The problem with silicon based sensors is that they are not feasible for cost sensitive items or items in small or bendable packaging where embedding sensors just won’t work. To solve this problem, a company called ThinFilm has created printed electronics. ThinFilm creates sensor technology that can be printed on smart labels for a fraction of the cost of silicon sensors and can be attached to a variety of packages that previously had no way of being tracked in real time.
When to use smart labels
There are many use cases for printed sensor technology. While today’s grocery industry has standardized on bar codes, this technology is limited in what data it can store. Product packaging can also run up to 30-40% of the cost of some products so solutions that alter the packaging process are often not feasible. Printed sensors can be attached to any package, even packages that may bend and can provide real time information about location, temperature, movement, moisture and much more. With printed sensors, companies can check temperature to prevent spoilage or validate the freshness of a product. Smart labels are often used to validate the authenticity of a product as well.
In the healthcare space, smart labels can track the usage and disposal of pharmaceuticals as well as help control inventory. Smart labels are also being attached to clothing where they can check body temperatures and dampness of bandages or adult diapers which help in assisted living scenarios. Logistics is another key area for smart labels. In the past, logistics companies may have attached an RFID tag to a shipping crate containing small, perishable products like medicine, yogurt or meat. With smart labels, tracking can be performed at the individual item level by simply applying a label to each individual product. This allows companies to get insights down to the item level rather than the shipping container level.
All about small data
I have written a number of articles about Big Data and IoT. Printed electronics is all about small data. What I mean by that is smart labels collect information for a handful of attributes and focus on use cases that require action when those attributes change. That is very different than the model where sensors collect massive amounts of data that is centrally managed and analyzed for patterns. In most cases, these sensors are trying to detect specific patterns such as a temperature exceeding a threshold or a product becoming moist. Big data is often used to perform predictive analytics or to apply machine learning techniques. Small data is much more prescriptive.
Still work to do
Printed sensor technology is an emerging technology. Currently it is limited to the amount of memory it can hold. For most use cases, storing a small number of attributes to track is ideal. Today the labels cost only a few pennies but expect this price to fall further if the technology becomes widely adopted. Broad adoption will lead to mass production, which will drive prices down. ThinFilm recently announced a partnership with Xerox to enable mass production as they prepare for industry wide adoption in the near future.
Sensors come in many shapes and sizes. Traditional silicon based sensors are a great fit for many IoT use cases but remain more expensive and less flexible than a new breed of printed sensor technology. Printed sensors are becoming an affordable, innovative alternative that might just radically change the landscape for Internet connected things.
This article was written by Mike Kavis from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.