Issue Date: January 10, 2011
Printing The Right Connections
Experts say that sales of printed and flexible electronics could approach $50 billion by 2020. That’s a tall order for a business that those same experts, at consulting firm IDTechEx, now count as a $700 million global enterprise. The semiconductor chip market, in contrast, is worth some $300 billion per year.
But to hear the industry gurus talk about it at the Printed Electronics USA and Photovoltaics USA conferences, held last month in Santa Clara, Calif., printable electronics will give us televisions that roll up, walls that light up, and solar cells that can wrap around any outdoor fixture. And the devices will be inexpensive, too, because they will be able to be printed roll-to-roll with conductive inks on paper or plastic films by using presses adapted from the publishing business.
Some products are on the market now. Sears, for instance, sells the $100 Craftsman work jacket, with a heat grid to keep its wearer warm, from printed electronics design firm T-Ink. Packaging producer MeadWestvaco worked with suppliers to develop the Dosepak, a medication dispenser containing a microprocessor and printed conductive inks. Now in use in Europe, the device records the date, time, and cavity location when a patient removes a pill. But unless printed electronics break into more sophisticated high-technology applications, they will largely remain a sideshow.
It has been more than a decade since the first flexible and printed electronics entered the market, acknowledged Raghu Das, chief executive officer of IDTechEx, which sponsored the conferences that attracted 1,300 people. So far it’s been a tough market to crack. Forty years of innovations have given silicon-based electronics a commanding lead over printed alternatives, Das noted.
About 3,000 organizations, evenly split between commercial and academic enterprises, now work on printed and flexible electronics, Das said. Those organizations have had some success in developing products such as screen-printed heating elements for rear car windows, keyboard membranes, and flexible connectors—most with the use of metal-based conductive inks. But in more sophisticated electronic and semiconductor applications, the nascent technology has made only minor inroads.
The promise of printed electronics has attracted the attention of some big chemical industry players. Early last year, Bayer bought SRI International spin-off Artificial Muscle, which makes electroactive polymer switches designed to give touch feedback on flat electronic devices such as smartphones and touch pads. Bayer is itself a maker of conductive inks.
In September 2010, Solvay invested $4 million in Polyera, a developer of organic semiconductors and dielectrics for organic thin-film transistors and photovoltaics. Solvay previously invested in Plextronics, a maker of conductive polymers and inks. And in October, 3M put money in Printechnologics, a German developer of printed batteries and printed digital data.
In 2010, the world market for electronics that were or could have been printed stood at about $2 billion, Das said. But in fact, only about one-third of these potential applications were realized. Of this $700 million market, about half was flexible products such as rollable solar cells. Organic light-emitting diodes that were both printed and flexible made up less than 0.1% of a potential $900 million market. For solar cells, the number was a bit higher at 0.7% of a potential $400 million market. And for electronic-paper displays, 10% of a potential $100 million market was printed and flexible.
With further advances in productivity, reliability, and cost, printed electronics will be cheaper than silicon-based electronics, Das predicts. Electronics printing plants that adapt continuous paper printing techniques are likely to yield products that are much less costly than batch-produced silicon chips made in multi-billion-dollar factories. But the biggest advantage printed electronics have now is their ability to flex, conform, roll up, or cover large expanses in ways that silicon-based materials can’t.
Optimistic about flexible electronics makers’ eventual success, Das predicts that by 2020, printed and flexible electronics will gain 80% of the potentially more-than-$50 billion printed electronics market.
Some established companies are counting on the printed electronics industries to advance their business, increase their competitiveness, and lower their costs. The most aggressive have gone out and found partners.
In one case, cosmetics giant Estée Lauder sought out Power Paper, an Israel-based maker of batteries printed on paper, noted IDTechEx Chairman Peter Harrop. In 2006, with Power Paper’s help, Estée Lauder developed the Perfectionist Power Correcting Patch for eye lines and wrinkles. A small electrical charge from the battery in the patch helps release a biopeptide that boosts skin collagen production. The patches now sell for about $100 for eight pairs.
Jeff Duce, a Boeing design engineer, told conference attendees that the big aerospace firm desperately needs new ways to reduce weight in its planes. The firm’s 747-100 airliner, for instance, contains 171 miles of copper wiring. Not counting the insulation, the wiring adds 1,700 lb to the weight of the aircraft.
Replacing the heavy wiring bundles with wiring harnesses that could be printed directly on the plane’s structure could yield enormous savings for customers. Just a 1% reduction in the airliner’s weight “would yield billions in operating savings for our customers,” Duce said. “What we need is corrosion-resistant, high-conductivity wiring” that performs as well as or better than copper wiring. Currently available silver and copper inks “have issues with corrosion,” he complained.
Boeing has already put some printed electronics to use. It has outfitted test planes with a bird-strike-danger detection sensor that incorporates printed electronics. Another area where printed electronics could succeed is in sensor systems that monitor the performance of carbon fiber-epoxy composites used in plane construction. Printed radio-frequency identification tags would be helpful in stanching the flow of counterfeit airplane replacement parts, Duce suggested.
Eric Penot, digital media director for JCDecaux, an outdoor advertising company, said his firm wants to move beyond the large liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) that it has been using for digital advertising. Known for placing its customers’ advertising on billboards, buses, and other public amenities, the firm had 6,250 digital screens in public places as of June 2010, up from 2,000 in October 2008.
“Our capital investments in digital displays are five to 10 times higher than in printed and illuminated paper displays,” Penot said. On top of their high cost, LCDs have other drawbacks, including relatively short life, high power consumption, and limited temperature and humidity tolerance. In addition, many digital screens look washed out in sunlight.
Penot said JCDecaux is on the lookout for electronic displays that are 20 sq ft and larger and cost less than $100 per sq ft, “which is much less than we pay now” for LCDs. Also on his wish list are displays with a 10-year warranty, dust and humidity protection, and minimal power use.
JCDecaux also wants units that are light and flexible and that incorporate touch-sensitive features. And particularly for outdoor displays, Penot said the firm is looking for monitors that reflect and work with available light. If the science of printed displays advances to meet the advertising firm’s needs, they’ll have a willing customer in JCDecaux, he said.
Integrating the skills needed to bring printed electronics and displays to commercialization was a central theme of the conference in Santa Clara. Parc, a technology commercialization subsidiary of electronics major Xerox, and Soligie, an electronics printer based in Minnesota, announced an alliance to bridge the gap between concept and reality.
John Knights, Parc’s senior director of business development, told his audience that the partners hope to make the connection between lab-scale prototypes and final manufactured product. What’s needed, he said, are more organizations that can provide the connection between interesting materials and new devices under development.
“This is an industry where design rules are not well established,” Knights said. “Materials and equipment are all evolving at the same time. At some point, you need to go into production.” The partners’ first project will be to commercialize work under way at Parc on screen-printable temperature sensors. Accurate to within 0.1 °C, the sensors can be used to monitor temperature-sensitive shipments.
One source of industry support is the Army, which is interested in printed electronics because of their light weight and versatility. James Zunino, a materials engineer with the Army’s Armament Research, Development & Engineering Center, told conference attendees that he is working to develop weapons that are 50% smaller and 70% lighter than those currently available. He encouraged firms with advanced print technologies to work with his group and other government R&D organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“Printed electronics will probably never be as good as silicon chips, but that’s okay as long as they meet our needs,” Zunino said. Those needs include flexible field-ready displays and printed antennas that fit in a soldier’s helmet. In addition, “we have made flexible detonators, infrared and corrosion sensors, and switches” as part of an effort to make lighter, smarter, and more reliable defense systems, Zunino said. He envisions a “fab in a truck” that could, for instance, quickly fabricate mine-detection devices where they are needed in the middle of a war zone.
In a session on the promise of printable electronics, IDTechEx’s Harrop pointed out that the U.S. military’s budget exceeds $600 billion per year. “The money is enormous,” he told technology developers at the conference. Like consumer product makers, billboard operators, and airplane builders, he said, the military “needs you.”
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