No invention has changed the world quite like the printing press. Initially developed in China and then later commercialized in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1400s, the printing press revolutionized society through mass production of the printed word. Today, a company in western Poland has been developing a manufacturing process that aims to make a similarly revolutionary impact. But instead of printing text, XTPL has developed a manufacturing technology that can be used to print electronics.
XTPL's technology produces structures that are incredibly tiny, several hundred times thinner than a human hair. In fact, XTPL stands for "Extremely Thin Printed Lines", so named for the appearance of the electrodes produced by the firm's first patented manufacturing process. Today, XTPL's printing technology and nanoinks are able to render conductive and non-conductive structures on the individual micron scale, anywhere between 1 and 8 micrometres. These structures can then be used in the development of semiconductors, displays or for making precise repairs to defects.
Just as the printing press helped lower costs of production and increase access to the written word, printed electronics and their components similarly have the potential to lower manufacturing costs and create opportunities for new types of products.
I connected with Dr. Filip Granek, the CEO and founder of XTPL to learn a bit more about their company and journey. The interview that follows was slighted edited for length and clarity.
Hi Dr. Granek, thank you for speaking with us about XTPL. Let’s begin by talking a bit about your company’s founding story. When did you decide to apply your technical knowledge to building XTPL?
At the beginning, I asked myself the question, "What can I change to be able to implement breakthrough technology on a global market?". I was aware of the enormous potential and a real impact that modern scientific achievements could have on the lives of the majority of the world's population. I took part in creating such breakthrough solutions as a scientist, before starting my own technology company. At the same time, as a scientist, I saw the limitations imposed on me by my then-current role. These considerations have led me to the decision that the long-term innovative project aimed at global implementation will be possible only in my own company operating on the interface of science and business.
XTPL is a four-year-old company founded in Wrocław, one of the biggest cities in Poland. We’re a technology company that has developed a unique approach to printing various materials. Our vision is that printing -- additive manufacturing -- is going to be a key, transformative technology for many high-tech industries. Modern electronics sector faces now a strong trend to produce high-tech devices using cost-effective and scalable methods. We think that our solution may potentially bring a true technological revolution. One could compare this process with previous revolution caused by the invention of printing press in 15th century. Although books have been around for nearly 3,000 years, they were rare and hard to manufacture until Gutenberg constructed this – then breakthrough - device. Before that text and illustrations were done by hand in a time-consuming process, and only the wealthy could afford them. But within a few decades Gutenberg's innovation spread and then became a standard.
The XTPL vision entails using the traditional advantages of print - such as scalability, lower cost, simplicity and speed - in the production of advanced, high tech devices. Our technology responds to the market need of progressing miniaturization and at the same time provides a cost-effective & scalable method. We believe that as easily and inexpensively as you print books and newspapers today, soon you'll be able to print display, semiconductor or smart glass elements.
In order for this to happen, you need printing technology to become much more precise than it is today. That is what XTPL is bringing to the table--the ability to print structures hundreds of times smaller than what existing printing technologies offer.
What were the initial technical hurdles that the team had to get over to bring XTPL’s solution to the market? What makes your solution unique?
Many industries are already inviting and challenging us to face the specific technological problems they need to solve to move their products forward. We undertake these challenges, each time optimizing and calibrating our technology – printing heads and nanoinks - to adjust them to specific requirements. Our strength is to consistently take advantage of our non-obvious mix of competences, also in the field of the technology itself. In our teams, chemists, electronics engineers, physicists, material engineers, mechanics and IT specialists work together, hand in hand.
At the same time, we do not want to be single-leveled, closed in the laboratory. We know that as pioneers we are to implement new solutions on the global market, but to achieve this we need to build a certain awareness. XTPL technology has one basic advantage - it is ground-breaking and therefore has a chance to replace existing, expensive and ineffective solutions.
Currently available methods of printing all have their advantages and disadvantages, but XTPL technology provides a unique set of features, one that helps to overcome real challenges for many industry sectors. What makes XTPL solution unique is the unparalleled precision & versatility. This disruptive solution works on most substrates, conductive and non-conductive, as well as flat and 2.5D, such as glass, silicon wafers, kapton, PEN, PC, PDMS, PET. It can provide straight lines, as well as patterns and microdots. Our method allows for printing a large variety of available materials: conductive inks, nanoparticle based suspensions, semiconductor based suspensions, insulating inks, resists, solvent based inks and biological materials. In order to achieve outstanding results at XTPL we create our own nanoink formulas based mostly on metallic nanoparticles and semiconductors.
What does the market for XTPL’s technology look like?
Our solutions of nanoprinting may be applied in many sectors, mostly within printed electronics, e.g. in semiconductors, smart glass, advanced PCBs, anticounterfeiting or biosensors sector. Our key focus at the moment is flat panel display market. Here we have already verified serious competitive advantages of our technology. We are open to collaboration with display equipment manufacturers as well as display manufacturers themselves, to provide for them a high-performance solution dedicated for industrial implementation.
What are some of the challenges with manufacturing flat panel displays that you can help to overcome? How did you know that this was a keen problem to solve-- and that a new printing solution, was the right way forward?
Currently, the display sector faces some challenges: progressive complexity of displays occurring with reducing feature size, constant miniaturization causing yield issues on the advanced manufacturing lines, expensive, complex, limited & slow yield improvement (repair) methods, need for mechanical flexibility of new generation displays or electrical field damage risk - to name some of them. XTPL plans to support manufacturers in overcoming those issues.
For example, the feature size of printed structures is one of the key parameters of our additive technology. XTPL solution can provide structures on the individual micron scale (1-8 μm - micrometres), which enables higher pixel density of the finished products. In particular the resolution, brightness and lifetime parameters of the final display are improved.
Another challenge faced by modern FPD manufacturing lies in the fact that ultra-fine conductive structures are prone to damage. This is a major factor contributing to the decrease of the production yield. XTPL advanced additive method for open defect repair (ODR) responds to manufacturers requirements in this respect. As I mentioned before it requires no electric field for printing, thus eliminating fully the risk of damage to the substrate and other electrically active components. Our method is effective and enables high spatial density of the printed features, high adhesion to the substrate (various options possible), all that with lower production cost for the manufacturers and no toxic substances used in the repair process.
Currently, a strong trend for producers who aim to meet the customers’ expectations is the introduction of flexible displays. Due to the high production costs and low yield of flexible electronics, its introduction on a mass scale proves to be a challenge. XTPL offers a solution that enables mechanical flexibility of new generation displays because electrically conductive structures obtained using our method retain their properties - including excellent electrical conductivity parameters - throughout the deformation of the substrate.
When it came to raising investment, how have you supported the company thus far? Why did you choose to pursue this route, over alternatives?
XTPL is a publicly traded company, listed on the main market of the Warsaw Stock Exchange. Our company has vast potential, one that convinced two well-known German investment funds Acatis and Heidelberger Beteiligungsholding AG to invest in us, among others. The first, managed by Dr. Hendrik Leber, is operating for more than three decades and is a trend-setter, both in terms of quality and selective approach to investments. The second is a subsidiary of a well-known investment group Deutsche Balaton and has strong, rising tech companies in its portfolio. This is probably not the most popular path for a young technological company, but it is one we have chosen for XTPL.
Where are your XTPL printing heads built? What are some of the factors you considered when working with manufacturers?
Fundamentally our technology is focused on dispensing very small amounts of material. That involves hardware, so the printing head used for printing, and the method of printing itself. That’s the core of our patents. But at the same time, there are no existing commercial inks that would work with this particular printing technology. That is why we have developed our own. So we also have a patent submitted in terms of the formulation and methodology used for the ink. All our R&D works are conducted in Wrocław. Our strength is that our team combines both skill sets that allow us to print very fine structures of various materials on various classes of substrates and that involves both printing head and dedicated ink. We are aiming to implement XTPL solution on the manufacturing lines and that entails building a tailor-made solution for each partner.
XTPL is headquartered in Wrocław. Can you tell us a little bit about the technology ecosystem there?
Wrocław has “a hi-tech state of mind”. Why? There are plenty of young, well-educated engineers and scientists, graduated from one of many universities and colleges. Those kinds of specialists are sought after all around the world and here we are first to hire them. There are also dozens of new companies born here - week after week – so the awareness about new business is very strong. Many institutions support young companies here with experience and networks of contacts. In Wrocław we also have some serious business players, having their HQs in our city, but successfully operating globally. Last but not least – Wrocław is a vivid, amazing place to live & work, with a unique culture and atmosphere – I imagine it's the most international city in Poland.
In your journey as a founder, what is a key lesson you've learned along the way?
I believe in the strength of the team. I work with very talented and exceptional people. As a leader I also must have the ability to learn quickly and make difficult decisions. I focus on mutual respect and trust, and on giving the team some space to develop their own skills and make their own mistakes. I also listen to the voice of the Silicon Valley top managers from our US subsidiary board. What unites me and the whole team is the hunger for success, a great passion and thinking in terms of "think big", and "yes, we can" approach in the face of challenges.
What is next on XTPL's journey? What should others know about what's on the horizon for you and the team?
Short-term, we are constantly optimizing our technology and adapting it to various implementation requirements. We aim to build partnerships and strategic alliances with well-established partners within dedicated sectors – at the moment with strong focus on flat panel display market - and to cooperate in the form of joint development or technology transfer. The first natural directions for us are Southeast Asia and North America, Silicon Valley to be exact, where we already have our daughter company XTPL Inc.. Mostly due to the concentration in those areas of companies that are the leaders of the most interesting – for XTPL - sectors.
Long-term we believe that thanks to XTPL nanoprinting, the access barrier to technologically advanced devices will drastically decrease - they will become more effective and cheaper at the same time. And this may entail a number of positive social and economic changes. Our dream is the future, in which the comparison to Gutenberg, whose invention revived the circulation of thoughts in Europe and contributed to the popularization of new ideological movements and trends, will not be an exaggeration. This is the vision of the future that drives us.