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Holst Centre is an innovator in electronics printed on film

Shirts with solar cells, cars without buttons on the dashboard: electronics printed on film make this possible. This is the story of Margreet de Kok, senior scientist at the Holst Centre in Eindhoven.

A shirt full of solar cells

She always eagerly looks forward to an exciting day as she leaves home to go to work at the Holst Centre on the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven. Margreet de Kok's job is to devise new innovations based on a very special new technology: electronics printed on film. A story of Brabant's prowess in this area: strain relief, shirts with solar cells and innovations that benefit society.

Imagine a campus building full of smart engineers. Margreet de Kok has her office on the second floor of that building. When she joined Philips Research twenty years ago, she was entitled to call herself a ‘senior scientist’ from day one. At first, she was slightly offended by the ‘senior’ in her job title; after all she had just arrived on the scene. Later on though, she understood that it was a compliment. And today, in 2019, Margreet thinks it highly likely that she will also end her career as a senior scientist. She looks happy at the thought. Proud even.

The reasons for her satisfaction and pride lie on the table in front of her. They are samples of the electronics that Margreet and her colleagues design. Super-smart electronics that, for example, will soon make it possible to perform an X-ray scan in an ambulance. Or make it possible for you to wear designer clothing that incorporates solar cells. Or make the dashboard in your car touch-sensitive (so you never have to press buttons again). Or warn you if your blood pressure is too high, even though you have no symptoms of hypertension. Science fiction? This is Margreet's daily work and she talks about it passionately.

High Tech Campus

‘The future belongs to those who create it’ according to the sign in the entrance hall at the Holst Centre; a collaboration between imec and TNO. The motto here is ‘open innovation’, which means that the business community and academics come up with new ideas together. And they do so using an indisputably innovative technology: electronics printed on film.

That calls for an explanation. If you were to open up your computer (so to speak, do not try this at home!), you will find boards full of electronic components. They are the electronics that control your computer. Those boards are anything but flexible and quite large. Margreet and her colleagues produce the same electronics, but on a flexible and very thin film. No one else can produce electronics on film this thin and flexible. The beauty of this film is that you can bend it. When the Holst Centre was founded twelve years ago, ‘electronics printed on film’ was still in its infancy. Margreet de Kok and her 250 colleagues have now developed this technique to the point where it is in demand worldwide.

A plaster eliminates the need for expensive measuring equipment

Take the medical sector as an example. Hospitals are very interested in plasters that incorporate electronics on film. Because you hardly notice the plaster on your skin and the electrodes in the material can perform all kinds of functions usually associated with large and expensive devices (and eliminate all the cables they require). A single plaster lets you check someone's heartbeat, breathing, blood pressure and other bodily functions. “Not only does this give you more freedom as a patient, you can also return home sooner. Because you can also be monitored remotely. And not having to use expensive equipment saves you time and money.”

The Eindhoven-based start-up Bambi, an initiative of a paediatrician at the Máxima Medical Centre (MMC) and his son, Sidarto and Fabio Bambang Oetomo, is another fine example of a medical application. “Our collaboration has led to significant advances in applying our film technology to monitor premature babies. Because they are no longer attached to countless cables and devices, their parents can cradle them lovingly in their arms.”

Holst Centre and patent rights

Of course, engineers like nothing better than dreaming up new things and applications, but there has to be market demand at the end of the day. That is why the engineers at the Holst Centre collaborate intensively with all kinds of different companies. They do not manufacture or market products themselves. “That is a conscious choice, to avoid competition with our partners,” says Margreet. “When they work with us, they need to be able to focus on developing the technology and not worry about anything else. They have access to our intellectual property and the associated patent rights. They pay us a fee and then launch the product on the market."

Who are “they”? Unfortunately, Margreet is not allowed to name any companies, but it is no secret, for example, that the major sports brands are interested in using electronics on film in their clothing. This technology delivers a wealth of data about an athlete's performance, data that a football team trainer, for example, can use to aid decision-making, i.e. which players are in the best physical shape? And therefore the best choice for the next team line-up. “Everybody experiences peaks and troughs. The more you can measure, and the more historical data you can weigh up in the process, the better your assessment will be.”

The Ministry of Defence is also interested

The medical industry and sportswear brands are clearly important customers for Holst Centre. But when you are able to offer something really special, like Margreet and her colleagues, you are guaranteed interest across a broad spectrum. “I visit so many different places and so many different areas of industry”, says Margreet enthusiastically. “People all over the world want to develop solutions to specific problems. So it’s very satisfying when those solutions are underpinned by our technology.” For example, staff in a nursing home want to know more about their residents’ day-night rhythm disorders. “When you incorporate our technology in clothing, you can see exactly how the body responds to light, nutrition and even the activities you offer.”

The Ministry of Defence is also interested in the Holst Centre's innovations. “They want to be able to monitor soldiers’ physical condition so that they know who can be deployed in combat situations and who needs to be recalled.” The Holst Centre is also involved in incorporating LED lighting in textiles, not only to keep runners safe in the evening, but also to make clothing visible in a different way. “You need to think carefully and adopt a subtle approach!”, warns Margreet. “You definitely don’t want something that looks like a Christmas tree. We have succeeded in creating subtle and innovative effects together with designers like Marina Toeters and Pauline van Dongen.”

Facts and figures for Holst Centre (2017):

  • Turnover: 42.5 million euros
  • Number of FTEs: 150.5  
  • Publications (peer reviewed): 56
  • Patents (first filings): 34

A dashboard without buttons

Time to get in your car. Your car? Yes, because these innovations will leave their mark on cars as well. You still have an abundance of buttons on your dashboard, steering wheel and radio at the moment. But mechanical buttons have had their day, Margreet tells us. “We are developing capacitive touch functions that are controlled by a layer of touch-sensitive electronics just below a smooth upper surface. All you have to do is put your finger on it. And we can also add light effects. A subdued light that illuminates on your dashboard or even in the door lets you know that someone is in your blind spot, or that a cyclist is approaching. And you no longer have to peer at an inconveniently small display when using your navigation system. Information is made available to you in several places in your field of view as you are driving, so you no longer have to divert your attention to your dashboard or a screen.”

This technology is not just of interest to the car industry. The medical world is also very interested in a smooth surface without buttons or switches. “Kidney dialysis equipment has to cleaned over and over again. That task could be made a lot simpler and therefore cheaper in the future.”

Technology that contributes to society

Monitoring bodily functions, tracking sports performance, mapping the lifestyle of senior citizens and improving road safety: Margreet and her colleagues make an important contribution in all these areas. She tells her story with visible pride. “Our technology is meaningful in different ways depending on the applications. That’s very rewarding.” Is dreaming up new and smart applications Margreet's main motivation, or does she just enjoy science as a pastime? Or does she do it for the final result: products that really help people? “Being able to offer a solution to people's problems, making people’s lives easier and supporting them with the electronics we develop: that’s the best part. That is a true contribution to society. Just suppose that our subtle light effects in cars will help reduce the number of road fatalities every year. Wouldn’t that be great? That's more important to me than being able to drive an expensive car with all kinds of gadgets.”

Science meets design

A special item of clothing lies on the table in front of us. Margreet describes it as one of her favourite innovations. The Solar Shirt is a ladies’ shirt that Holst Centre developed in collaboration with Pauline van Dongen, a promising Dutch fashion designer . This shirt is pretty special because it is full of solar cells. And rather than being concealed, they are all in plain sight because they have to be able to absorb energy from the sun. “This shirt is a teaser, something we created just to show what’s possible”, says Margreet. “Like the large solar panels on your roof, this is another application of the same technology. Clothing offers all kinds of opportunities for harnessing your own energy and putting it to good use, like charging your mobile phone."

The idea sounds fantastic. But turning the idea into a concrete product was a labour of love. For example, you need to be able to wash your clothing. Water and soap had to be kept well away from the electronics. And the mechanical loads (constant movement, the spin dry cycle) were also a challenge. “We have put a lot of thought, time and energy into this product,” says Margreet. “It even features strain relief: there is a gradual transition from hard to soft pieces of film. You can bend it without concentrating all the forces in one place.”

She sees the shirt as a perfect example of synergistic collaboration. “We are engineers, so what do we know about design and aesthetics? Pauline van Dongen took our building blocks and turned them into a magnificent garment.”

Connecting people can be challenging

The fact that Margreet has been able to enjoy her job for so long does not mean that she never encounters problems or never wishes she had done things differently. She regularly attends meetings with companies from Japan, America, Eastern Europe and South America. Great fun mostly, but customers from faraway countries speak a different language - both literally and figuratively. “It always takes a while before you understand and trust each other. To find out what you have in common, and then define the right direction for the research."

We Dutch speak our mind, says Margreet. “For us, a problem is a problem. And we want to investigate and understand the problem as well as possible, because only then can we come up with a solution. But in other cultures, people are not always used to stating that something doesn’t work or isn’t possible, or prepared to admit that they don’t know something.” And certainly not in front of others, let alone strangers.

“So it’s always a question of looking for the right approach and jointly trying things out.” An interesting and instructive process on the face of it. But in hindsight, Margreet occasionally has regrets: “If I’d known that before, we’d have done things very differently.” Here’s an idea for an innovation that would appeal to her as an innovator: a tool that helps people bridge cultural differences faster.