Nowadays, the term printed electronics is taken to include thin film electronics that will become printable. Most of the potential for printed electronics lies in what Toppan Forms calls Smart Media Products (SMP) which will be intelligent and mass producible yet often customisable as well. They will usually be used at the human interface or connected to networks and embedded ubiquitously into the environment. All this means that printed electronics will largely create new markets, such as tape around pipelines to detect leaks and impending leaks and signal that there is a problem. After all, leaks still occur in the Trans Alaska pipeline, in refineries and in utility pipes underground.
Certainly, printed electronics will commonly take the form of tape, "wallpaper", posters, patches and packaging rather than electronic equipment. Electronically savvy companies already making patches, tape or packaging such as 3M and Toppan Printing will be more comfortable with this world than the big computer and telecommunications businesses or even the silicon chip makers.
Basically, we are scoping a major change throughout society from the smart shop and office to the smart home. The US Army plans to use printed electronics to reduce the weight of a warfighter's pack by two thirds and give him smart clothing that generates electricity, heats him, cools him, monitors vital signs, acts as a long range antenna and so on. Printed electronics can reduce cost but it also involves sophisticated structures some of which perform better and are more fault tolerant than traditional alternatives. Most commonly, it will be used where traditional technology is simply not a feasible solution.
Printed electronics technology
The biggest potential lies in organic or combined organic/inorganic structures because they often promise the lowest costs, allied to the fastest printing technology, such as gravure employing water-based inks, with low temperature curing. Inkjet is also a most popular choice because of its tolerance of uneven substrates and its instant reprogramming. The silicon chip has little to offer beyond logic, memory and a few small sensors because it is only economical when small. By contrast co-deposition of different devices using printed electronics can exploit the fact that it is economical with a large footprint. For example, actuators, batteries, powerful capacitors and resistors, photovoltaics and a considerable choice of wide area sensors will be codeposited without the need for conventional unreliable and expensive interconnects required when connecting silicon chips.
However, the only severe impact on an incumbent technology may limited to button batteries and a few other things. Later there will be a big impact on conventional lighting, when the up front cost, installation cost and running cost of flexible Organic Light Emitting Diodes OLEDs all become superior but that is probably ten years away. Most other applications of printed electronics and electrics will be huge only because they do new things and create new markets, not because they primarily replace existing solutions. Indeed, even with lighting it will often mean creating light in new ways and new locations.
Biggest opportunities are with flexible substrates
The biggest opportunity for printed electronics is for versions on flexible paper or polymer substrates because these will become lowest in cost and most suitable physically for the largest volume applications in future such as smart labels, smart packaging, books, newspapers, signage, posters and billboards. Flexible substrates also give us lowest installation cost compared with today when conventional electronics and electrics can cost as much to install as to buy.
In the early stages of this industry, technologists have reported that life, performance and cost are variously delaying progress. However, lack of imagination is also holding things up. The most important challenges vary between the different types of component being developed and some are summarised below. They include Thin Film Transistor Circuits TFTCs combined with antennas to form RFID labels and the various forms of thin film photovoltaics PV, being launched in 2007/8.
Nonetheless, as all eventually approach maturity it looks as if the shortage of technically savvy, imaginative product design and marketing will eventually apply to everything. For example, who can match the blistering pace of T-ink in applying today's printed technology to interactive tablecloths for Hallmark Inc, table mats for McDonald's, pillow radios for Toys 'R' Us, weight reduction and saving space in cars and secret equipment used by military forces?
Lessons from the race for flexible electrophoretic displays
In 2007, the most significant announcement has been the raising of $100 million by a small company, Plastic Logic, to set up a factory to make flexible electrophoretic displays in Dresden in Germany. The facility will produce flexible active-matrix display modules for 'take anywhere, read anywhere' electronic reader products. It will utilize Plastic Logic's unique process to fabricate active-matrix displays using printed transistor backplanes that are thin, light and robust; enabling a reading experience closer to paper than any other technology.
The financing is one of the largest in the history of European venture capital. Bandel Carano, Managing Partner at Oak, an investor, said "Plastic Logic has created a pioneering technology that will revolutionize the way that people interact with their media on the move. This investment is a perfect fit with Oak's vision of future media interaction through handheld devices."
Hermann Hauser, Director of Amadeus commented "Having backed Plastic Logic from day one, I am delighted that the first full commercialization of plastic electronics is now firmly in our sights. With this investment we are not only scaling up a great company - we are also creating a new electronics industry that will become a significant addition to silicon."
The remarkable progress of Plastic Logic in setting up production for flexible electrophoretic displays enabled by its printed organic field effect transistors can be contrasted with Sony in Japan setting out to do the same thing. In this case we have a giant corporation that is already selling rigid electrophoretic displays. However, it has been late in developing printed organic thin film transistors on flexible substrates, issuing most patents in 2006/7 as it races to catch up. The new markets that the two companies create for e-books, signage, military roll up displays and so on will be big enough for both of them to prosper. Perhaps they will both end up making their highest volumes in China but one giant will be notably absent. Xerox has shut down its Gyricon subsidiary developing flexible electrophoretic displays. This sort of interplay will be worked out with photovoltaics, batteries and many other printed components in the next few years and clearly it is wrong to believe that the giants will always win. Some of the small companies like Plastic Logic have many giant backers anyway. It would also be wrong to say that manufacture in a certain part of the world is a guarantee of success.
All these issues will be aired at the global conference Printed Electronics Europe 2007 in Cambridge, UK on April 17-18.
To aid industry development Venture Capitalists and strategic investors will take part in a "Printed Electronics Investment Forum" matched with companies that seek funding now or in the future. To act as a showcase to the world unexposed companies in this sector are featured covering new material, with key presentations from Levi Strauss, Ifra Enews, Kodak, Sharp, University of Tokyo, BASF, Paru, NanoMas, Trinity College Dublin, Plastic Logic, Arjo Wiggins, HC Starck, Dimatix and many others, covering not only technology but also realistic markets for the technology. To recognise achievement an experts panel will award prizes to leading companies.
After holding five global events on this topic IDTechEx aim to make this the biggest and most important printed electronics event this year encompassing all of organic, printed inorganic and thin film electronics and not any one particular subsection. We hope you can be part of this rapidly growing exciting industry event - whether as a speaker, delegate, exhibitor, media partner, consultation panel expert etc. Learn how you can get involved at www.idtechex.com/peEUROPE, and please don't hesitate to contact Chris Clare at + 44 1223 813703 or mailto:[email protected] you have any questions or would like to discuss how you can be involved.