Printed Electronics Glossary

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The ability to address bits, fields, files or other portions of the data storage in a tag or other data store.

Batteries, Printed

There are two basic types of batteries that are often made in laminar, disposable form. Part of the assembly process, which is often reel to reel, may include screen printing of active components. The one that is potentially lowest cost and is regarded as most environmental is based on manganese dioxide and zinc. It is a primary battery. Applications of thin film batteries are mainly outside RFID at present, including backup power for electronic circuits and to drive talking gift cards. However, there is a big push to get them used widely in RFID where they would increase range, tolerance of metal and absorbent material and so on.

Capacitive Coupling

Contactless signal transmission by electrostatic effect.

Chipless Tag

A tag without a microchip (integrated circuit). Printed electronic tags for RFID are a type of chipless tag.


Complementary metal oxide semiconductor. One of several semiconductor fabrication technologies and currently the most popular partly because it conserves power by putting p and n type transistors back to back. This is also possible with silicon film TFTCs and ones made using organic semiconducting films. However, achieving both p and n type with polymer films based on printing inks is a relatively recent development. CMOS advantages for chip cards, tickets and tags are that it has a low power consumption, operates faster and is resistant to electronic noise. CMOS can operate over a wide range of supply voltages. CMOS circuits are susceptible to damage by static electricity so care is required when handling them. They are Field Effect Transistors FETs.

Carbon Nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes can be considered as extended carbon "bucky balls" - hollow cylinders of structured carbon atoms (tubular fullerene) which can be capped at the two ends with a hemisphere of a bucky ball. Multi wall and single wall nanotubes are available, with single wall nanotubes exhibiting a regular, near perfect structure when carefully produced. These have a diameter of 0.7-2nm and lengths of thousands of times the diameter.

Chip Tag

A chip tag is one that has a silicon chip in it.


Printed conductive patterns need to have as high a conductance as possible. Today these are typically screen printed with silver inks but high speed printing such as flexo is starting to be possible. With new inks that have adequate conductance for interconnects, electrodes, antennas etc. Some inks are being developed that are cheaper than silver.

Contactless Chip Card

A card which does not need to make physical contact with the read-writer in order to work because it passes electrical or magnetic signals through the air. Some operate only a few millimeters away from the reader, others work at many meters. The remote linking is either by capacitive or inductive coupling. More expensive but more reliable and sometimes more tamper-proof than contacted cards.


The representation, manipulation or transmission of information by discrete, or on-off, signals.

Electrochemical Displays

Printed image displays employing electrochemical action. These may retain the image when the voltage is removed but they are slow to change and potentially very low in cost.

Electrochromic Displays

A solid-state display in which the readout surface is coated with a material that changes color when positively or negatively charged. It does not emit light but it is low in cost and easily printed using screen printing.


Electroluminescence is the creation of light by applying an electric bias to a material. It may employ AC or DC voltage. It is employed in LEDs and in large area displays etc. When the applied forward voltage on the diode of the LED drives the electrons and holes into the active region between the n-type and p-type material, the energy can be converted into infrared or visible photons. This implies that the electron-hole pair drops into a more stable bound state, releasing energy on the order of electron volts by emission of a photon. The red extreme of the visible spectrum, 700 nm, requires an energy release of 1.77 eV to provide the quantum energy of the photon. At the other extreme, 400 nm in the violet, 3.1 eV is required.

Electronic Article Surveillance

Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) is the familiar antitheft tag on or in items in shops. It is not RFID because it only detects if something is there or not there (the antitheft tag) but these systems do employ electronic interrogators working at radio frequencies or thereabouts and their adoption is well ahead of RFID. It only became widely acceptable to retailers and end users when the tags were hidden out of sight in the item so they did not scare bona fide customers or disfigure products, some of which are intended as presents or for display in the home. A typical EAS tag is in the form of an adhesive label. It consists of a flat coil - usually etched copper - connected to a flat capacitor to create a resonant LC element.

Electrophoretic display

Display that relies on moving colored particles in a viscous medium to provide a display that stays in place when the bias is removed. Limited colors but wide angle of viewing.


A company that sells silicon microchips but it does not own its own silicon semiconductor fabrication plant. These plants typically cost several billion dollars to build and operate. Fabless companies outsource manufacture of their silicon microchips to fab-companies, often in Asia.

Field Effect Transistor

The first choice of thin film semiconductor was thin film silicon decades ago and many companies still work with this material. It has been commercialized as drive circuits on the glass substrates used for Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD) and, more recently, Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) displays for cell phones. The main advantage is that they are cheaper than silicon chips when used over a wide area. Their inferior electrical properties are not a limitation in this application.

Flash memory A

n advanced type of EEPROM memory, it is a high density, low power consumption, rewriteable non-volatile medium used in some modern chip cards and computers.

Flexible Electronics

Flexible Electronics or printed electronics is a term loosely used to cover very thin electronic devices and circuits and even some that are purely electrical. (See Printed Electronics)


Flexography involves surface relief on a polymer plate i.e. something like a rubber stamp. It is usually a high volume process (24", 300 ft./min) but resolution is limited and there is rigidity of the plate and an Anilox roller to cope with. Because flexographic printing applies the medium using a raised pattern that is flexible it is somewhat tolerant of surfaces that are not level.

Ferroelectric memory

A type of printed memory relying on a ferroelectric polymer as the active element between electrodes.


The number of times a signal executes a complete excursion through its maximum and minimum values (cycle) and returns to the same value.


One of the fastest printing technologies. See diagram


Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) of the USA.

Indium Tin Oxide

An electrically conductive material that is vacuum or aerosol deposited to form a semi transparent conductive layer in liquid crystal displays, electroluminescent displays etc.


This technique is used in many contactless cards in order to deliver power to the card and to allow it to communicate with the outside world. Same technique used to interrogate early types of in-car tag. A coil is embedded within the surface of the card or the road and a card is placed in or connected to the read-write unit. When the current is passed through one coil, say the read-write unit, magnetic field is created and, if the second coil, say in the contactless card, is bought close enough to it, this magnetic field leads to current being delivered to that coil as well. Once this occurs, the card has sufficient power to function and data can be exchanged between the card and the read-write unit.

Ink jet

A printing technology where ink is squirted through the air onto the surface to be printed. The ejection is typically by piezoelectric heads, which tolerate a wider range of inks, and the more proven (in high volume) boiling technology. It is useful on surfaces that are not flat and it uses little ink with little waste and quite high definition but it is relatively slow.


The transfer of ions across the skin, due to the application of an electrical potential making the outer layer porous. Smart skin patches use iontophoresis to send drugs, nutrients, tattoos etc through the skin and advanced versions will record performance, permit different doses by time of day, or deliver according to monitored need and employ RFID to report it unambiguously identifying the source thanks to printed electronics.

Item level RFID

The RFID tagging of the least divisible thing in RFID terms such as the packs of drugs kept in the home and individual cans of beverages. In the context of RFID, item level particularly relates to high volume items i.e. taggable in millions to trillions. It is the biggest RFID market of all, potentially, but the percentage of such items that are currently tagged is miniscule. The technical and cost requirements of item level tagging are usually very different from those for other forms of RFID with the need for small tags - because they usually go on small items - that work in systems tolerant of absorbent and reflective material nearby yet cost less than any other type of RFID tag.

Membrane switch

A keyboard for electronic devices that has no moving parts - typically it is printed using silver inks. A flat, usually programmable, keyboard with numerous pressure sensitive switches located under a soft surface. After areas of the keyboard have been defined, the user activates them by pressing on the surface. Therefore, a membrane keyboard is one flat surface. The advantage is that you can make overlays which customize the layout to fit your specific needs. The disadvantage is that it is only two dimensional, and it can be easy to activate undesired fields without a key guard.

MEMS (Micro Electromechanical Systems)

Micromachined Electromechanical Systems are microscopic machined devices moved by electricity and usually repeated in large numbers across a surface for some purpose. There has been talk of using MEMS as sensors with RFID. Being fashionable, the term is much abused, often being used to describe any small sensors including those with no moving parts. Because micromechanical electromagnetic systems involve microscopic mechanical and electrical components and moving parts and have advantages as some forms of sensor, for example, often with the energy harvester, such as a microscopic wind turbine, or piezo vibration harvester, forming part of the micromachined assembly. Accordingly, all three options will form an important part of advances in energy harvesting in the next ten years - a change from the past.


On a scale of nanometers, from atomic dimensions to about 100 nm.


Technology related to features of nanometer scale: thin films, fine particles, chemical synthesis, advanced microlithography, and so on, many of which may be of use in printed electronics in the long term.

Near Field Communication

Potentially interlinking the functionality of Bluetooth, WiFi, ZigBee and RFID we now have Near Field Communications NFC. However, it would be wrong to portray it as the "glue" that sticks them together in all situations. NFC enables the user to exchange all kinds of information, in security, simply by bringing two devices close together. Humans like to touch things together, though, as with RFID smart cards, bringing them within a few centimeters is sufficient for the transaction to take place. Its short-range interaction over a few centimeters simplifies identification because there is less confusion when devices can only contact immediate neighbors.


Organic Field Effect Transistor.

Offset gravure

A complex offset process involving multiple transfers between the gravure plate, the plate cylinder and a solid rubber plate. An indirect printing technique that re-deposits ink from a gravure cylinder to a rubber coated cylinder which then applies the ink to the final substrate.

Offset lithography

A modern development of lithography in which the image is lifted from the plate by a rubber roller which then reprints it onto paper. An advantage of this double printing procedure is that it re-reverses the image, which is then printed in its original direction.
Source IDTechEx
A printing method that uses the repellent properties of oil and water to reproduce an image on a flat surface. The process originated with the practice of drawing on stones (lithography comes from the Greek word for "stone writing") with an oil-based crayon and then wetting the stone. Oil-based ink would then be applied, repelled by the water, and transferred to a sheet of paper pressed upon it. Technically, a commercial form of planographic printing. Offset lithography is a palaeographic printing method in which the image area and the no image area of the printing plate are essentially on the same plane. They are separated by chemical means, based on the principle that grease (ink) and water (fountain solution) do not readily mix. The ink is transferred from the plate onto a rubber blanket and the to the paper.

Organic Electronics

Printed electronics is a term loosely used to cover very thin electronic devices and circuits and even some that are purely electrical. This is because these technologies and their applications interrelate and overlap. They have a great deal in common. Even the word printing is used loosely because though vacuum deposition, as an example, may not be regarded as printing by the purists, it often evolves into conventional printing using electronic inks to produce the same thin electronic device.

Organic Light Emitting Diode

An LED manufactured with organic light emitting material whether as a single component or as an array. A form of laminar electronics, the diodes in these displays emit light when a voltage is applied to them, and can be selectively turned on or off to form images on the screen. The devices use organic rather than silicon semiconductor materials.

Pad printing

Use of flexible pads to print on uneven surfaces. Typically, an inked image is transferred from a photo-etched plate to a thick, soft silicone pad. The pad is then pressed against the plastic part. The pad can wrap itself as much as 180° around a small object, and ink coverage is excellent. One color is done at a time, but registration between colors is good enough to allow four-color process printing. Recommended by some for direct printing of electronic circuits onto finished products.
Source: IDTechEx

Passive tag

In electronics this means either unable to generate its own signal, therefore has no power supply (e.g. passive RFID tag) or an electronic component that cannot amplify signals and/or obeys Ohms Law (e.g. resistors or capacitors).


The base (hole injection) layer for most Light Emitting Polymer LEP displays is a water based material called PEDOT (polyethylenethioxythiophene). In solution, PEDOT is an acidic conductive polymer with a pH of approximately 1.5.


Poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) poly(styrenesulfonate) aqueous dispersion known as PEDT/PSS or PEDOT/PSS. Its main uses are conductive polymer-based coatings and flexible electrode material.

Photovoltaic Polymers

Photovoltaic polymers are polymers used as the active part of photovoltaic cells i.e. cells that generate electricity from light. Conducting polymers also act as semiconductors, and their electronic properties appear to be analogous to those of inorganic semiconductors.


A polymeric semiconductor.

Printed electronics

Printed electronics is a term loosely used to cover very thin electronic devices and circuits and even some that are purely electrical. This is because these technologies and their applications interrelate and overlap. They have a great deal in common. The word “printed” is used loosely because some deposition methods (vacuum deposition for example) may not be regarded as printing, however it often evolves into conventional printing using electronic inks.
Source: Aveso
Even for the same type of device, such as a transistor circuit, there are different production approaches to production. For example, the company Plastic logic uses ink jet printing and Poly IC uses a variety of reel to reel processes as shown below.
Source Poly IC


Radio Frequency Identification. Use of small devices that can be electronically identified (and sometimes their data changed) at a distance without line of sight. Although radio is typically defined as 300 Hz to 300 MHz, nowadays the term even encompasses tags interrogated at 100 Hz and others at microwave frequencies (GHz). These devices are called tags and they may be used alone - contactless smart cards and car clickers are examples - or fitted to something in order to monitor its identity remotely. Sometimes RFID will employ tags that perform extra functions as well such as sensing what is happening or recording updated data remotely, for future remote interrogation.

Screen printing

A printing process in which ink is applied to a surface by forcing it through a fine mesh screen made of silk or a synthetic substitute. Screen printing uses silk or other fabric stretched tightly over a frame. Images are created by blocking parts of the screen with stencils created by hand-drawn or photographic techniques. Screen printing is one of the oldest printing techniques. Basic equipment costs little and large amounts can be printed in one time. Most of today's printed electronics consists of conductive patterns in carbon or silver inks where high speed printing technology has not been able to cope with the inks or thick enough layers for the requisite conductance could not be made at one pass. Screen printing is therefore used for membrane keyboards, RFID antennas and other applications. Rotary screen printing is sometimes preferred because it gets over the very modest throughput of conventional screen printing. Screen printing is also used for dielectric, phosphor and passivation layers of ac electroluminescent printed wide area displays.

Smart Cards

Chip cards which have an onboard CPU (central processing unit), which is able to perform functions on the data stored in it. Some people have widened the term to include all chip cards.

Smart dust

Ultra-miniature sensors measuring temperature, humidity, pressure and acceleration linked wirelessly over a mesh network using TinyOS operating system. Interface boards and gateways with software to link to PCs, LANs and GPRS networks make remote datalogging simply viable in the largest volumes with printed electronics.

Smart labels

A smart label is a flat responsive device that is usually electronic. Most electronic devices are becoming flat because it is easier to lower their cost and fit them in awkward places such as packaging but we are not defining smart labels as generally as this. Smart labels are typically no more than 0.3 millimeters thick. We include smart tickets and laminates in the definition but not smart cards even if they work at a distance. These are a separate, but closely-related subject. Smart labels are becoming enormously important both socially and in terms of business potential. Today, there are four primary types of smart label (Source: IDTechEx)

Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS)

Primarily, these are used for theft detection in shops and libraries. These tags do not contain data. Demand is growing a few percent yearly with about six billion tags sold each year and over one million readers in use. Manufacturers offer three incompatible systems causing manufacturers fitting the tags at source to, expensively, stock up to three variants of each product. An increasing majority of EAS tags are fitted at source - mainly in packaging so the thief does not know they are there.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

The benefits of electronic and electric smart packaging are extremely widespread and becoming more so. They include saving lives, preventing sickness and crime, entertaining, refreshing brands and reducing costs for all in the supply and usage chain from parts suppliers, product manufacturers, retailers and repair services to consumers and recyclers. Such smart packaging is of immense interest across most of society from Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) to pharmaceuticals, postal services, the military and archiving including libraries.

Smart labels for brand enhancement that are not EAS or RFID

In this context, brand enhancement is the adding of useful or attractive features to a product or its packaging via a label or insert, an example being disposable battery testers.

Smart labels for diagnostics that are not EAS or RFID

Diagnostics is the use of labels on products or packages to detect such events as dangerous overheating in transit or storage, completion of cooking, shock, tilt, vibration, completion of sterilization. Today, this is usually achieved by non-electronic inks and laminates.

Smart packaging

Smart packaging has refers provides responsive features such as coverings that let certain gases out and other gases in, or radio tags that return a signal when interrogated electronically. Sometimes includes forms of anti-counterfeiting or anti-tamper features.

Smart tickets

Smart tickets are disposable or of limited use such as one day transit. Most work with existing smart card infrastructure but not venue tickets. They typically hold 256 bits or more of data to reflect the extravagant use of memory by the transport industry. Smart tickets are memory-only versions of smart cards with cheaper, more primitive outer protection. They are used for road tolling but the biggest use is in bus and train ticketing where the existing smart card readers at barriers read even the one-trip smart ticket thus eliminating queuing and providing much lower cost over life of the ticketing system (magnetic stripe readers are more expensive and less reliable). Smart tickets are the size of credit cards but thinner, being made out of paper or paper/plastic laminate. Use of a basic chip precludes multiple service providers using securely segmented data on the chip. Processing of data and live encryption is not available on the chip but all this keeps the ticket price down to less than one twentieth off that of a true smart card. Like the smart cards it works alongside, the smart ticket works to ISO "Proximity" standards at a few centimetres range and 13.56 MHz and its value can be remotely rewritten as it is used.


Entering the bloodstream by absorption through the skin.

Transfer printing

A printing method by which the pattern is printed onto an intermediate medium such as plastic film or paper and then applied to the final product to be printed by pressure and/or heat or other treatment that makes the pattern leave the transfer medium and deposit permanently on the product to be printed. Traditionally, the transfer of a design onto fabric using a specially coated paper printed by an inkjet printer or color copier. The design is applied to the fabric with a hot iron or a heat press. However, in printed electronics, one meets it as a possibility for printing down thin films that are strictly not printed when they are formed, examples being RF sputtered NiCoFe electromagnetic patterns for Electronic Article Surveillance and RFID smart labels.


A semiconductor device used in amplifiers, oscillators, and control circuits in which current flow is modulated by voltage or current applied to electrodes. A device used to amplify a signal or open and close a circuit. In a computer, it functions as an electronic switch. Transistors are tiny electrical devices that can be found in everything from radios to robots. Most transistors are based on the use of silicon including some thin film ones but these are not strictly printed because they have to be vacuum deposited at present. Technically, a transistor is a semiconductor component that acts like a variable switch, controlling the flow of an electric current. Typically it is a component with an electrode, the gate that controls the flow of current between two other electrodes, the source and drain. The gate does this by having a potential applied to it as appropriate. Transistors have two key properties: 1) they can amplify an electrical signal and 2) they can switch on and off, letting current through or blocking it as necessary.

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