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Printed Electronics: Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

The printed electronics market is expected to have a 58 percent CAGR growth between 2010 and 2016. To realize that kind of growth, says Yole Développement, in its report “Printed Electronics: Hype vs. Reality,” the industry needs to be able to deliver prototypes that can be manufactured, also with killer applications.

That being said, the report estimates there are more than 1,000 companies worldwide involved in some form of development of technology enabling printed electronics: inks and chemicals, substrates, printing techniques, and thin-film transistors (TFT) and other device structures.

The big issue for the burgeoning industry is market fragmentation, with the various companies each working furiously in their particular area of expertise. Yole Développement notes that for printed electronics to show some real commercial value, there has to a coalescing around just a couple of the current crop of technology available.

Promises, Promises

It’s widely agreed by those in the technology know that printed RFID holds great promise, replacing costly and environmentally unfriendly silicon chips with electronic and photonic devices printed with conventional inkjet printing techniques and conductive inks, insulation and semi-conductors.

According to IDTechEx, “fully printed RFID can be one tenth or less of the cost of the conventional silicon chip based tag”. IDTech expects in the near future RFID will replace a lot of traditional labels. Instead, RFID tags will be printed directly on things like barcodes, delivering a potential of “100 billion to one trillion yearly in consumer packaged goods, healthcare, postal and other applications.”

The applications themselves are nearly limitless: Electronic greeting cards with flashing fireworks, animated brand protection, smart packaging integrated with useful functionality, such as alerting consumers when their milk is going to expire.

Already interesting applications are in play: DuPont Innovalight that is printed nanosilicon on conventional solar panels, increasing efficiency; flexible and roll-up keyboards; the tester on the Duracell battery; flexible solar-powered posters that emit light and have animated effects and sound interaction.

More to Come

Expect more RFID in all sectors, says Dr. Peter Harrop, Chairman of IDTechEx and co-author of RFID Forecasts, Players & Opportunities 2012-2022. “One of the biggest reasons is that most mobile phones are starting to have NFC (near-field communications), which can act as a RFID active or passive tag or reader,” he says. “The most popular use of this is to replace the financial and travel cards you use.”

Wolfgang Mildner. Managing Director, PolyIC GmbH & Co. KG sees two main directions for RFID applications. “One area is the use in supply chain automation and logistics (with requests for long read range and handling of many products at once), which is very much driven by reducing logistic costs,” he says. “The main driver for RDIF in this application is cost reduction.”

The other area Mildner sees as having major growth potential is in value-add applications. “RFID can and will enable very different and interesting applications, from brand authentication, intelligent and interactive packaging to even payment in the future,” he says.

Headquartered in Furth, Germany, PolyIC is developing applications for printed electronic products and components, including RFID, based on its roll-to-roll technology, which delivers transparent, high-resolution and conductive foil straight from the roll. The company is a member of the Kurz Group; Kurz is a supplier of foil stamping technology.

“PolyIC focuses its our work on the second area of application, product concepts like our PolyLogo powered by RFID demonstrate first possibilities for RFID in intelligent and smart packaging and enable user interaction,” says Mildner. “This is a new dimension for intelligence based on electronics on the packaging level.”

“We see a lot more possibilities for printed electronics in this area, although some more functions and performance still needs to be developed,” says Mildner. “ Silicon electronics is progressing and developing fast and has of course advantages, but roll-to roll printed electronics will provide efficient und sufficient solutions in the future.”

Technical Barriers Remain

One of the issues with printed electronics is that in some areas the technology is too early stage or has critical technical barriers—even where it has been demonstrated, there is no commercially viable path to move it into production, notes Scott White, CEO of PragmatIC Printing in Cambridge, UK.

In 2010, PragmatIC acquired the printed electronics business of Nano ePrint Ltd, including its patented technology for planar nano-electronic devices that can be manufactured in a single semiconductor layer via single-step imprint patterning. PragmatIC has extended this imprinting process to allow a full range of device and circuit architectures to be printed in transparent, flexible semiconductors at micron and sub- micron scale.

PragmatIC’s printed logic circuits can be integrated on plastic, paper, card or metal surfaces, which may be curved or flexible. It can be partially transparent, or integrated into the artwork of the product, and is ultra thin so it does not stand out.

While PragmatIC has received commercial orders, its current revenues are generated primarily from licensing its core technology for imprinted electronic logic, and from prototyping integrated product solutions that combine its logic with other printed (or conventional) electronics. Most of the prototyping projects are for large multinational consumer brands. PragmatIC is also establishing its own pilot production line, which will extend these projects to low volume commercial production (approx 10k - 1M units). “We expect this line to be fully operational by the end of this year,” says White.

Reception in the marketplace has been incredibly positive, says White. “The general reaction is that we have the key missing piece for complete printed electronics solutions, namely thin, flexible logic that enables interactivity and intelligence,” he says. “However education of potential customers is definitely required - particularly about the feasible roadmap for increasingly complex printed electronics solutions. It is not so much that they need to be educated regarding the possibilities, but rather regarding the technical realities that constraint what can be achieved in the near.”

White argues that some companies seem intent on continuing to improve the technology, pursuing some perceived ideal, rather than actually getting out and talking to customers about what they can do with it now.

“Printed logic is one area that suffers this in particular, since many of the claimed results use techniques that are too sensitive to process variability and/or require significant improvements in equipment to be achieved reliably,” says White. “This is one reason why we are so positive about our approach, since it uses unmodified off-the-shelf equipment and can very quickly scale to high volumes and ultra low cost with relatively low capital investment.”

In the United States, Kovio, a privately-held company based in Silicon Valley with origins in MIT’s Medial Lab, announced that its RFID Barcode wireless tag technology will be used with NFC solutions from INSIDE Secure, a leader in semiconductor solutions for secure transactions and digital identity.

Kovio has developed high-performance “electronic” silicon, dopant, metal, and insulator inks that combine with conventional printing technologies to print RF Barcode tags on thin, flexible substrates. Kovio is leveraging its platform to develop low-cost RF Barcodes, such as those used in NFC markets.

Moving forward, INSIDE and Kovio are looking to deploy a solution that will allow retailers and brands to interact with consumers and the point of sale in the areas of mobile marketing and advertising, brand authentication, retail operations, and ticketing.