Cutting-edge tech will meet traditional printing in pioneering UWE ‘smart ink’ project

T-shirts that change colour to alert the wearer of dangerous chemicals in the air or pharmaceutical packaging that can show when pills are counterfeit could become reality under a major ‘smart ink’ project linking UWE and a leading scientist and print industry expert. 

Starting in January at the university’s Centre for Fine Print Research (CFPR), the five-year £1.5m project will combine elements from 19th century reprographic methods used in security printing with modern day techniques.

This is set to give rise to a new design of print head for commercial printers, development of the next generation of inks with distinctive properties and new ways of printing. 

It is being funded by the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) through a Manufacturing Fellowship grant awarded to Dr Susanne Klein, making her the first woman to receive it since its launch in 2012.

Dr Klein, pictured, is a renowned expert in the fields of physics and material science and previously held a senior research position at Hewlett Packard. For the research, Dr Klein will set up a laboratory in and collaborate with the CFPR.

The research will combine the CFPR’s knowledge of traditional photomechanical printing methods, such as Lippmann and Woodbury, and re-adapt the techniques for use on a 2.5D printer, which creates texture as part of an image on a substrate. 

Using her expertise in colloidal chemistry (working with particles suspended in a solution), and liquid crystals, Klein will also develop specialist inks that can change colour in certain environments.

Such properties could enable t-shirts to detect chemicals in the environment that have a proven link to cardiovascular disease, and change colour to warn the wearer. Similar ink on the garment could also react to heat and change colour when the wearer has spent a long time in the sun.  

Smart inks could also help manufacturers trace a product as it passes through the supply chain, or curb counterfeiting.

Dr Klein said: “There are lots of problems with counterfeiting of pharmaceuticals and sometimes products are found to be counterfeited where the packaging is identical to the original. We will produce packaging with printing ink that will change colour every time it passes through and is authorised at a different stage on its way to the customer.

“Another application could be in the case of food that needs to remain cold in its packaging. The technology could lead to labels that react to heat, switch to another colour if they have warmed and stay that colour.”

The UWE research is likely to impact the printing industry, although this is not a change that will happen immediately, said Dr Klein.

“The printing landscape is changing and I think our research will contribute to that, but the industry is traditional with its own way of doing things, and no big printer will make any radical changes. Our plan is to feed in little advances, bit by bit, so that commercial printers can adapt slowly to new technologies,” she said. 

The funding will provide £300,000 per year for five years to the university and Dr Klein will set up a team comprising a post-doctorate student and a technician to work with the CFPR to develop this new printing approach.

CFPR director Prof Carinna Parraman said: “We are honoured to receive this grant, in a context that is unprecedented nationally in an art school environment. This is a unique opportunity to pair an experienced material scientist, coming into academia with industrial and manufacturing process knowledge and skills, with the CFPR’s expertise in photomechanical processes invented in the 19th century.”

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