If you're in the hospital, you'll see different controls on your bed for adjusting the mattress angle, bed height or lighting. At home, switches and knobs on your appliances can set temperatures and timers, or select custom features. Even gas pumps at service stations have an array of buttons for choosing types of fuel or payment methods.
These small objects, which have a great impact on our lives, are used extensively and can be time-consuming and onerous to keep working properly, clean and in good condition. But this innovative, cost-effective solution developed by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and industry collaborator, Montreal-based e2ip technologies, is transforming the way we interact with things that surround us.
The new creation, called overmoulded smart parts (OSP) manufacturing, uses molecular ink, patented by the NRC and e2ip, to print electronic circuits and sensors onto 2D sheets of thin plastic that are formed and overmoulded in protective plastic to create "smart surfaces," a patent-pending NRC–e2ip developed process. The smooth surfaces, which are tough, water repellent and chemical-resistant, bring complex controls within easy reach. These easy-to-maintain and -clean devices can be built into bedframes, appliances, car doors and airplane seats, where they can be cleaned with a quick spray and wipe.
"The notion of using printed electronics to create control interfaces, instead of assembled circuits of wires, chips and other components, has been considered for many years but remained explorative and unscalable," says Eric Saint-Jacques, CEO of e2ip technologies, a company that provides advanced material-science solutions to world leaders in the aerospace, medical, industrial and transportation industries. He adds that "the science required to transform this notion into functional systems could only be accomplished with the NRC's leading scientists and resources. Working with NRC experts and facilities has been a transformative opportunity for e2ip to meet our customers' rising demand for innovative solutions."
"Over a 5-year period working on the materials-science challenge with the NRC's Security and Disruptive Technologies Research Centre in Ottawa and the manufacturing-process side with the Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre in Boucherville, we developed a fully validated prototype that has just entered production planning"
Pooling talent and brains for smart solutions
The NRC's Arnold Kell, a research officer with the Security and Disruptive Technologies team, says this process now provides the opportunity to interact with our surroundings in many ways through touch interfaces. "The development of overmoulded smart parts (OSP) hinge on the performance of molecular inks. Because the conductive traces produced from the inks can be stretched to twice their length and remain functional, OSPs with cutting-edge designs and unique functionality are now possible," he says. Dr. Kell adds that the "spirit of creativity" among various NRC research centres and intellectual property and business development teams, as well as e2ip's industry researchers, ensured the development of a truly original and disruptive solution to the challenge presented by industry.
Paul Trudeau, Senior Research Council Officer at the Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre, explains that production of the smart surfaces replaces traditional injection moulding with reaction injection moulding, which is a less traumatic approach. The liquid polymers can be injected at lower temperatures and lower pressures, so the internal printed hardware is not stressed during manufacturing. These injected clear liquids allow for controlled light transmission within the part, and possess excellent resistance to aging and ultraviolet exposure.
"The controls are housed within 2 inner skins that are overmoulded with resin, encapsulating the electronic components," adds Trudeau. The cost of such solutions can be 40 to 50% less than traditional configurations, while taking up less room and weighing a fraction of the weight.
Smart concepts come in all shapes and sizes
To demonstrate the manufacturing process, the NRC and e2ip have designed a console dubbed "Avatar" for executive-class seats in high-end aircraft. It is an assembly of printed buttons, dials, displays and other functions housed in a single part that is only 2.5 mm thick.
"There are no moving parts; everything is done with conductive sensors that give you feedback as you use them," adds e2ip's Mr. Saint-Jacques. "The seat-mounted device allows you to control stereo, video, Bluetooth and other functions with the touch of a finger." Avatar was one of 3 finalists at the 2020 AIX Aircraft Interiors Expo for the Crystal Cabin Award, an international award for excellence in aircraft interior innovation, which was postponed to later in 2021 due to the pandemic.
From concept to construction, the project team continues to rethink the boundaries between technology and design to deliver an innovative human-machine interface, a user interface or dashboard that connects a person to a machine with smart-surface solutions. And such broad-based teamwork will ensure that the creative ideas continue to flow. "This disruptive technology will completely transform the surfaces we touch in our everyday lives and simplify how we interact with our physical environment," concludes Mr. Trudeau.