When the PrintoCent printed intelligence Pilot factory was opened in Oulu in 2012, it was expected to gain a two or three year head start in the global PI race. Four years later, the unit is serving companies that use printed intelligence, while matching international companies with Nordic expertise in the sector. In Oulu, PI development has shifted from supporting individual innovators to creating an entire industrial sector.
Ilkka Kaisto, the Director of PrintoCent, says that, right now, research institutes are creating product demos and pre-production trial series, prototypes and prototype series based on customer needs. The aim is to convince end-customers that PI should be part of their products.
– The next three years will involve fighting on these two fronts, and products will begin to enter the markets from 2018 onwards.
At that point, the ICT cities that demonstrate the ability to meet these new needs will be the winners.
– This is ultimately about credibility as a producer of printed intelligence. When a region has enough companies in the sector, it has high potential to break through into the international markets, says research team leader Kari Rönkä of VTT.
Printed technology has mainly resided in testing laboratories or research units rather than production plants. Now, after the product development, prototyping and pilot series stages, printed intelligence is ready for the markets. For example, Promilless, a blood-alcohol measurement device by Oulu-based company Goodwiller Ltd (see mini-article), was developed at PrintoCent.
Kaisto points out that PrintoCent has brought 25 companies into the world since 2010. Half of these emerged from VTT's own research groups and half from printed intelligence business training, i.e. the Pälli courses. Firms are provided with support and assistance on a case-by-case basis. Some are provided with R&D, while others may need enhancement and marketing of their business activities.
– One of PrintoCent's achievements lies in bringing companies and research institutions together. There is no need for expensive product development and piloting facility investments when services can be bought in as required, comments Kaisto.
From prototypes to industrial scale
PrintoCent helps the local printed intelligence SME companies to the negotiating table with large, international companies. At the same time, the piloting needs are growing. First, a printing machine has been used to create single prototypes, which now form the basis of up to hundreds of thousands of demo series.
– Printed intelligence products are now forming part of a larger whole, which places the emphasis on quality. To get the product to market, fully functional products need to be manufactured with a more than 99 percent yield and faulty products have to be identified, Kaisto explains.
A world-class piloting and R&D environment also raises the credibility of firms among funding agencies. A small firm can overcome its size limitations when it has access to over a hundred researchers and a high-technology piloting environment.
However, being the world's first PI innovator is not enough in order to succeed. You also need to get your products into the world. Since 2013, a cluster of 40 companies has been operating alongside PrintoCent. This has brought together small startups, SMEs, and large companies operating on the global markets.
Interaction is direct during meetings, but is not limited to encounters within the cluster. Kaisto characterises the network as ideal for creating multi-company projects funded by Tekes. This involves joint research projects implemented by companies, VTT, the University of Oulu, and Oulu University of Applied Sciences.
– Multi-company projects are a slick way of doing research, since in practice this means completing a project in about one rather than two or three years, comments Kaisto.
One of these is the growth and innovation programme, Hilla. Firms in the Hilla network can develop products directly for international customers.
– In the Hilla programme, several local companies – which build an offering together – are needed to create a single product or service. One strong, leading company, which already has an international distribution channel, is involved, says Rönkä.
In August, the University of Oulu and Oulu University of Applied Sciences announced the launch of a training programme for developers of printed electronics products. 20 trainees will participate in the first group. Kaisto estimates that printed intelligence companies need a hundred engineers to work on product concepts in the Oulu region alone.
– Although companies are engaged in the design of PI products, engineers are needed to add the finishing touches in particular: how can the products be made cost-effectively and reliably? A hundred engineers are now needed for this.
Printed intelligence already provides work for 300–400 experts in the Oulu region. Kaisto believes that this number will grow to a thousand by 2020. The new sector will be fully under way by then.
Blood alcohol test based on saliva
Can blood alcohol content be measured in an easier, more cost-effective way than using the current devices? In the autumn of 2012, Petri Särkelä (CEO) and Petteri Närä (Business Developer) of Goodwiller Oy believed so. The Promilless blood alcohol test strip, which is based on printed technology, was launched in June four years later. By then, Teemu Mäkiniemi had joined as Technology Director. Promilless was first launched in Finland, but the company has aimed at the international market from the beginning.
– Marketability has been the number one issue from the outset. Huge business potential can often be found in solving everyday problems. There is a global need for meters like this, says Särkelä.
The men's original brainwave was verified by research at the University of Oulu, which showed that blood alcohol could be measured from saliva. A measuring technique was needed next. The men heard about training on the printed intelligence business at a local start-up incubator (Yritystakomo), and decided to get involved. Perhaps printed technology could form the basis of a functional tool?
– In Pälli training, we got to the brainstorming stage and learned that a blood alcohol test strip made using this technique would be sufficiently cost-effective and, above all, reliable. This was the key issue.
Collaboration with VTT was close, particularly in the early product development stages. The entrepreneurs handled marketing and business planning themselves. Both have extensive experience of research and product development: Särkelä of high-tech in the ICT sector and Närä of the alcoholic beverage industry and industrial commercialisation.
– We have used VTT's laboratory facilities and other equipment to evaluate which production method would be the best solution, comments Särkelä,
PrintoCent's networks, which Goodwiller intends to use during the further development stage, have also been of assistance.
– Since it isn't possible to expand our own staff at the early stage, we have focused on the core issues. We have obtained contacts in the markets and with the right experts from companies in our sector.