Printing technologies are attractive methods for high-throughput additive manufacturing of nanomaterials-based thin film electronics. Roll-to-roll (R2R) compatible techniques such as gravure printing can operate at high-speed (1–10 m/s) and high-resolution (< 10 μm) to drive down manufacturing costs and produce higher quality flexible electronic devices. However, large-scale deployment of printed wireless sensors, flexible displays, and wearable electronics, will require greater understanding of the printing physics of nanomaterial-based inks in order to improve the resolution, reliability, and uniformity of printed systems.
In this study, we designed and constructed a custom sheet-fed gravure printer which features registered multilayer printing for nanomaterial exploration and thin film device development. The design allows precise, independent control of the speeds and forces of each of the subprocesses of gravure (ink filling, wiping, and transfer), enabling novel experimental controls for dissecting the printing process fluid mechanics. We use these new capabilities to investigate the primary artifacts which distort printed nanomaterial patterns, such as dragout tails, edge roughness, and pinholes. These artifacts are studied as a function of print parameters such as contact pressure, wiping speed, and transfer speed, by printing silver nanoparticle ink to form continuous features with dimensions in the range of 100 μm to 10 mm. We found that the contact mechanics of the ink transfer process have a strong influence on the formation of dragout artifacts, indicating the presence of a transfer-driven squeezing flow which distorts the trailing edges of features. By engineering the transfer contact mechanics with varying rubber substrate backing stiffness, we found it is also possible to suppress this artifact formation for a particular nanomaterial ink. The improved areal uniformity and print quality achieved using these methods highlight the potential for gravure printing to be a versatile nano-manufacturing tool for patterning a variety of thin film smart materials. We also hope that the open-source printer designs presented here can serve to accelerate the development of high-speed nanomaterial printing.