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Butler Technologies Plays Key Role in Printed Heater Technology for U.S. Olympic Team
Butler Technologies, Inc., a printed electronics manufacturing company in Butler, Pa., helped design and manufacture a flexible printed heater for jackets worn by members of Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. The heating element is printed in the shape of an American flag, in carbon and silver ink, and bonded to the interior of the jackets. Photo courtesy of Ralph Lauren / Team USA.
By Mark Shortt
Butler Technologies, Inc., a specialist in user interface design and printed electronics, has made great strides during its 28-year history. Founded in 1990 by William Darney (now deceased), and Nadine Tripodi, Butler began as a brokerage firm that represented board manufacturers and screen printing companies, before venturing into manufacturing in 1993. Although the company has expanded and enhanced its offerings through the years, it never lost its original core manufacturing focus as a precision printer.
"That's what we started as, and that's where our true passion lies, in printing, and especially in conductive inks," said Butler Technologies President Nadine Tripodi, in a phone interview with D2P in February. "We are, in most cases, a contract printer, and on top of that, a solutions provider for those of our customers who aren't really sure what they want or what the best approach to a print solution might be, especially in user interfaces and different types of graphic overlays."
Today, Butler is heavily focused on printed electronics, a growth market that has the company designing and manufacturing a range of wearable electronics, capacitive touch circuits, and flexible printed heaters, among other products. The company supports its customers' product design and development goals through the efforts of an approximately 10-member engineering design team that continues to grow.
"That's one place that in the past couple of years, we've really added more people, and they're good–they really are," Tripodi said. She credited Butler's head engineer, Mike Wagner, as being instrumental in the company's ability to offer leading-edge printed electronics. "He is the one who really has a penchant for this and has helped tremendously in getting us more ingrained in the printed electronics world."
Butler's engineering team offers expertise in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and project management. Its electrical engineers can work with customers to design and integrate custom printed electronics that meet specific size, shape, and functional requirements of a given project, the company said on its website.
Sometimes, customers come to Butler with a drawing showing exactly what they need, and don't make any modifications or alterations to it. But even in some of those cases, Butler may offer suggestions that can improve the design of the product, even if they're not implemented at that particular time.
"It may not be on that run of the product when it happens," Tripodi said. "But in many, many cases, we have the opportunity to help somebody improve what they already have on a drawing."
The company states on its website that it "has transformed itself from a label, membrane switch, nameplate, and print brokerage firm, into a provider of printed electronics solutions."
The transformation began about 10 years ago, when Butler Technologies was working with a creative design firm from New York that was enthusiastically pushing the envelope on what Butler could achieve with conductive inks. It was enough to get Tripodi and company managers thinking more deeply about how they could apply Butler's basic talents–precision printing, cutting, and manufacturing of industrial products. It's a process that continues to evolve today.
"It was maybe a life changing event for us when those kinds of products were put before us and we were challenged with 'Can you print this?' Tripodi said. "And can we make sure that when we print it, we can print layer upon layer in precise fashion, build up these conductive traces to make sure they carry the kind of current that we want them to, and then take that flat sheet and form it? These are all things we worked with in collaboration with our customers and suppliers to get to the point where we are today."
Today, Butler Technologies (https://butlertechnologies.com) is a well-established specialist in user interface products and printed electronics. The company employs about 60 people at its manufacturing plant in Butler, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh, where it now makes a range of innovative products like force sensing resistors for pressure mapping, inventory control, and medical applications; capacitive touch circuits and human machine interfaces (HMI); and wearable, stretchable circuits for e-textiles, among others.
"We are a label, membrane switch, nameplate, and printed electronics manufacturer and design firm," said Tripodi, who added that Butler provides manufacturing services that include laser cutting, die cutting, laminating, embossing, digital printing, and screen printing. "Those are all part of our process, along with a lot of electronics assembly, with pick-and-place equipment, and the ability to adhere different components, like LEDs and resistors, onto circuitry, whether it be on film or more flexible materials.
Butler Technologies' printed electronics expertise came in handy last year, when DuPont, a supplier to the company, approached Butler for help in developing a printed heater. Butler had worked with DuPont before to help prove out products that DuPont was bringing to market.
"DuPont had always been a good supplier to us for different products. They've done a lot with flexible conductive inks, in conjunction with certain materials that weren't necessarily common in our industry before," Tripodi told D2P. "We've always been known as a company that will test products for them because we have pretty strict manufacturing parameters, and repeatable manufacturing parameters. Not only DuPont, but other suppliers of ours will ask us to test product as they're bringing it to market."
When DuPont representatives asked Butler's team for help with the heater, they didn't say how the printed heater would be used. They saved that for later, after the companies had gone through several iterations and testing.
"At one point, they said, 'By the way, these are for the U.S. Olympic Team and Ralph Lauren,'" said Tripodi. "We're certainly proud to be a part of this, and excited by what we found out was the end application, after the fact."
The printed heater was destined for jackets worn by members of the 2018 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Teams at this year's Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Designed to keep Team USA athletes warm in PyeongChang's frigid temperatures, the heating elements were embedded inside Ralph Lauren's limited-edition opening ceremony parka and limited-edition closing ceremony bomber jacket.
"I can tell you that it's a printed flexible heater. It's what we call a PTC heater–a positive thermal coefficient heater," said Tripodi, who declined to provide further details about the printer, including how it works inside the jacket, citing a non-disclosure agreement.
The heating element was described in a press release from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) as being made from electronic printed conductive inks. It is printed in the shape of an American flag, in carbon and silver ink, and bonded to the interior of the jackets. Flexible and stretchable, the printed conductive inks connect to a battery pack with three settings, and provide wearers of the jackets with immediate heat and 11 hours of heating time at full charge, according to the USOC release.
It turned out that Ralph Lauren wanted to make the product 100 percent in the United States for the athletes. The flexible printed heaters are the result of collaborative development involving numerous companies throughout the U.S. manufacturing supply chain. Ralph Lauren, Butler Technologies, and DuPont are just three of the most visible contributors to the product development program.
"There are a lot of companies that were involved in this, including people who did things with connectors, and design firms that found ways to make sure that the heaters could be secured within the jacket," Tripodi told D2P. "Our contacts were mainly with the connector people and DuPont.
"All of us can take pride in this, and I really like the fact that Ralph Lauren committed to making these 100 percent in the United States," she added. "It not only gave a printer like us an opportunity, but it also really helped to boost the image and spotlight the capabilities of other companies here in the States. I'm pleased that here, in Butler, Pa., we've got some of the most advanced printed electronics technology within these four walls, and it's because we're willing to test and try new things, and we get rewarded with a really cool project like this."
Mike Wagner, head of engineering at Butler Technologies, said in a release on Butler's website that it was an honor for the company to develop a printed heater for the U.S. Olympic jacket, and an exciting experience to partner with such an iconic American company as Ralph Lauren.
"Butler Technologies has participated in several unique projects, but few having the visibility of an Olympic Jacket," Wagner said. "The fact that these companies are 'local' and accessible makes partnering more efficient and accelerates getting the product to market. Knowing that the materials, technology, and labor were all sourced in the U.S. provides a great sense of collective pride among all those involved."
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