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The Billion-Dollar Printed Electronics Market

The printed electronics market is set to explode. According to IDTechEx’s Printed and Flexible Sensors 2014-2024 report, the total market for printed, flexible, and organic electronics will grow from $16.04 billion in 2013 to $76.79 billion in 2023.

Printed electronics is the printing of electronic circuits and components onto common substrates, such as paper, plastic, and textile, using standard graphic arts printing processes and press equipment, such as inkjet, screen, and gravure.

Market growth will come from opportunities captured by replacing expensive electronic components, traditionally used for thin-film transistors, resistors, inductors, and capacitors, with a less expensive and sometimes higher performing alternative, and more readily from the integration of electronic devices into novel systems.

Key areas for printed electronics are thin-film, printable batteries, gaining traction in smart cards; battery-assisted, passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, smart labels, interactive printed media and packaging, and medical and cosmetic devices. Printed and flexible sensors are already a $6.3 billion business, says IDTechEx, with the largest market biosensors, used in disposable glucose test strips that help diabetics monitor their health. Much of what is happening is contributing to the Internet of Things, which describes the ability of sensor-enhanced objects to communicate with one another without human intervention.

The concept of printed electronics is not new. In the past, technology and financial investments held back scaled-up manufacturing, but recent developments in conductive ink chemistry and flexible substrates show promise in delivering new markets and applications. Electronic inks with conductive properties, sometimes called “functional” inks, are used in printed electronics to manufacture thin film transistors and thin printed batteries, for example.

Driving market developments are the need for low-cost, large-area electronics, especially for displays; the need for flexible and more rugged circuitry, most often for displays; and the desire to produce relatively simple and/or short-run circuits on accessible, low-cost equipment rather than silicon fabs, says Tom Ashley, president of Pivotal Resources, a consultancy specializing in inkjet applications and emerging print technologies.

To make printed electronics a commercial reality, improved performance in printable semiconductors and better integration of multiple print technologies into one continuous process is required, says Ashley. “There needs to be less emphasis on going for the ‘brass ring’ and more on incremental development,” he says.

The market right now is at a critical juncture, as heavy investment for a decade has proved too little in return and too many failures, says Ashley.

However, there has also been success, and research and development is currently unfurling at a rapid pace. “There have been a lot of people working in the area of printed electronics, and it is progressing nicely,” says Leon Wong, director of market strategy for PARC, a Xerox company based in Palo Alto, CA that is a pioneer in the field.

“We see the industry today as not replacing silicon components, but as putting electronics where they didn’t exist before, and in a space where they don’t compete with silicon fabs,” says Wong. Applications can touch down in a variety of industries, from healthcare and pharmaceuticals to security to food and beverage, government, and printing and packaging.

PARC has forged partnerships with industry leaders and government agencies engaged in best use of printed electronics. One partner is creating smart labels to use on wine bottles to measure temperature and insure security. PARC partner ThinFilm (PARC is a shareholder) is creating low-power, rewriteable smart labels with printed memory. The smart labels, which are flexible and washable, can be used as inventory tags, replacing barcodes and offering heightened identification, protection, and security. They can also be printed on the packaging substrate at the same time as the graphics. 

In October 2013, Thinfilm demonstrated the first standalone printed electronic label, a temperature monitor designed for protecting perishable goods. Thinfilm has extended this circuitry to demonstrate an electronic timer label.

“There is still a big gap in the performance of today’s silicon components and printed electronics,” says Wong. “To develop the printed electronics market, we believe the best place to start is where there currently aren’t electronics being used, then move to a hybrid scenario, and then as time goes on and the technology evolves, to start replacing silicon.”

PARC’s industry assessment is the result of 15 years involvement with the development of printed electronics. “We are viewed as a leader in the field,” says Wong. “We have spent a lot of time developing the eco-system, to help companies move from prototype to mass production on a roll-to-roll process.”

In fact, to help develop the market, PARC has created a library that details the electronic platforms and is accessible to all industry players, even competitors.

More Market Developments

Optomec, which develops additive manufacturing technology used to print antennas for mobile devices such as smartphones, touchpads, and laptops, reports its Aerosol Jet Printing Engine is in production trials in China. Optomec’s technology offers an economic and more environmental and healthy-friendly alternative to plating-based manufacturing methods such as laser direct structure (LDS), one of the traditional processes used to manufacture mobile device antennas, says Ken Vartanian, Optomec marketing director.

LDS requires a three-step plating process of copper, nickel, and gold, exposing particles during the fabrication of the cell phone case. Plating is not an environmentally friendly process, and nickel in particular is a health hazardous material, says Varantian. Conversely, Optomec’s technology is a one-step process that prints directly on the insert of a phone case using silver nanoparticle ink.

The market for this product is huge, says Varantian. Each mobile phone requires several antennae. In 2013, International Data Corporation (IDC) reported worldwide smartphone shipments exceeded 1 billion; that number is projected to grow to 2.3 billion by 2017.

Enfucell’s SoftBattery’s rotary screen-printed battery is used in applications such as RFID tags, micro sensors, transdermal pharmaceutical and cosmetic patches, and functional packaging. Future applications include displays, electronic paper, and mobile sensors.

In packaging, for example, embedded printed electronic components allow changing text, display, or sound as part of the package. SoftBattery can also be a power source to the next generation smartcards, also known as "powered cards.” These cards integrate a thin and flexible battery into the plastic card (such as credit cards or security cards), and may include a one-time pass code for authentication possibilities or identification codes.

Small, embedded printed power sources are also being used in wireless sensors tags in the healthcare and food industries. These sensor tags mean that patients are no longer tied to the hospital bed, and are able to move around while vital functions are being monitored. Battery-assisted sensors are able to monitor the lifespan of temperature sensitive products, such as blood, human organs, frozen food, and fish.

In November 2013, Trace Tech ID Solutions, announced its partnership with Blue Spark Technologies, to develop new battery-assisted passive (BAP) RFID sensors for use in a myriad of applications and industries. Trace Tech is combining Blue Spark’s printed batteries with its automated smart label production capabilities to produce disposable RF-enabled time-temperature monitoring smart labels, for use in the foodservice and healthcare industries. Temperature sensitive pharmaceuticals, such as vaccines and biological, can be easily monitored, for example. .

Blue Spark’s technology is also used in interactive printed media, novelty items such as musical greeting cards; do-it-yourself voice-recorded greeting cards; interactive packaging, such as singing cereal boxes promotional toys; and eye- or ear-catching retail merchandising displays.

In July 2012, PragmatIC Printing Ltd, which manufacturers imprinted logic circuits, signed a licensing agreement with ITW Foils and Thermal Films Group, a group of businesses that are part of Illinois Tool Works. ITW will combine PragmatIC’s printed electronics with other decorative and security features, such as holographic or metallic foils and laminates, to enable a novel range of fully converted functional solutions.

Also in 2014, Andrews & Wykeham is planning to commission a complete printed electronics integration and conversion line. This high-speed roll-to-roll facility will be targeted at a new generation of security foils and labels that leverage PragmatIC’s ultra-thin, flexible and low cost electronic logic.

Enabled functionality will include both overt visual features and machine-readable features, activated by RFID readers and smartphones. Such features have applications across many aspects of security, including personal identity, document authentication, and revenue and brand protection.

PragmatIC’s technology will add new functionality to Andrew & Wykeham’s track-and-trace system, providing the ability to track items without requiring line-of-sight, and to record security information directly within a label.

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