The Future of Printed Electronics

While still mostly in the experimental stage, the opportunity is there for printers willing to take a deep look outside of the traditional box.

The future of some of the most commonplace electronics may be printed. A marriage between the electronic and print worlds is expected to create low cost, lightweight components for everything from sensor-based skin patches, to radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and printed solar panels. And while intelligent devices printed in ink are still a rarity, now is the time for printers interested in this movement to start to understand the process.

Basically speaking, printed electronics (PE) consist of antennas, die, and various circuit boards produced by way of screen printing, inkjet, or Aerosol Jet, with either conducting or semiconducting inks. These components can be printed directly onto a paper, cloth, or plastic substrates, or even on large structures like an airplane fuselage. By printing directly onto these materials, manufacturers can create an electrically responsive object at a relatively low cost. And that matters in several industries.

PE is used to create resistors, condensers, transistors, and interconnects, among other electronic components. It also is being used to develop sensors for skin patches, while RFID tags can be printed onto packaging and respond to a wireless interrogation. Beyond those applications, PE is also being developed for uses such as organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays, lighting, and organic solar cells, all with a goal of cutting costs in high-volume manufacturing.

How it’s Made

The PE process started with plastic and organic electronics that leverage carbon-based ink compounds. But the demand — and therefore development — has been evolving due to the growth in wearable devices, RFID tags to track goods or enable payment, ID cards, and wireless Internet of Things (IoT) sensors. While growth has been limited so far, it’s building momentum. The market, in fact, will be growing at around 15% in the next five years, according to Mohit Shrivastava, Market Insights’ senior consultant for ICT and electronics. A report on the subject from IDTechEx, (Organic & Flexible Electronics Forecasters, Players & Opportunities, 2015-2025), further indicates that the market for printed and flexible electronics will reach more than $73 billion by 2025.

Several trends are accelerating that growth: high demand for thin and flexible printed circuits and devices, increasing adoption of additive manufacturing, and high demand from photovoltaics applications, Shrivastava says.

Common Applications

Hybrid Electronics: PE are beginning to be combined with conventional components to enable high volume and fast manufacturing for custom form factors and design flexibility.

Health Care: Sensors can be worn by patients to eliminate the need for wires. The health care industry is actively pursuing PE for medical implants, smart skin patches, medical wearables, stretchable sensors, and biodegradable circuits.

Automotive: Electric vehicle manufacturers are demanding flexible PE. That’s in part due to the increased demands for smart electronics such as thin film photovoltaics built into the vehicles.

Intelligent Packaging: RFID and NFC solutions are being used for everything from pharmaceuticals to medical devices, high value luxury goods, perfumes, and even posters. And intelligent labels and packaging applications will be more commonplace. Printed electronic labels and cartons or containers would provide efficient brand protection when printed directly on packaging.

Companies such as Samsung, LG, Jabil, Printed Electronics Ltd., Konica Minolta, DuPont, BASF, Cicor Group, Thinfilm Electronics, and Molex are some of the biggest players in this burgeoning market.

In addition to the large traditional electronics firms, however, “due to emergence of new use cases and applications in this market, we see a lot of [other] companies entering this space,” Shrivastava says. Some of the emerging PE companies growing into this space include CLEARink (in the U.S.), Etulipa (The Netherlands), Printed Energy (Australia), Chromition (U.K.), and Senoptica Technologies (Ireland), among others. These organizations are often focused on offering PE products for their own local markets to boost their brand, and to grab a local customer base.

Research institutes around the world are supporting and developing PE-based solutions as well. The Silicon Valley-based organization NextFlex, for example, creates flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) that include printed circuit boards and advanced manufacturing. The group’s goal is to accelerate the growth of flexible electronics, says Malcolm Thompson, executive director of NextFlex.

In this effort, the organization is developing the next generation of printed circuit board technology.

“We produce very flexible electronic, thin polymer substrates, and print the interconnect with a variety of printers with conducting inks,” Thompson says. Typically, the engineers can then mount components on the PE to create a product that is flexible and lightweight. Ultimately, he points out, that enables electronic systems to venture into places such technology hasn’t had a presence before.

“It’s not just the flexibility that’s important, it’s [the fact] that it’s much simpler,” he explains.

Projects are accomplished by the institute’s members, proposed by members, and technology is designed and manufactured in limited numbers (about 1,000 units) in the organization’s own facility. Solutions address use cases from health care and infant health, to authentication devices for the U.S. military.

An Opportunity for Printers

NextFlex uses various types of printing technologies in its products, as well as provides assembly of components, and pick and place of circuits. Printer manufacturers serve as part of what Thompson calls a collaborative community for development, by providing presses that can accomplish the work being designed.

And soon the organization will have the capability to print electronics on very large objects directly — such as printing a large antenna structure on the side of an aircraft. That’s important because the bigger the antenna, the longer the range. The organization has already undertaken work printing electronics onto drone wings for satellite communications.  

“What is really quite amazing is the number of totally new applications people are bringing to us,” Thompson says.

That provides opportunities for companies that can accomplish PE printing. “There is [a] lot of need for different types of materials and printers to do different things,” and each one has its merits, according to Thompson.

“People [representing printing companies] come to us and say what can we do for you?” Thompson says. The ability to print different materials in different ways — such as highly dense material work that doesn’t clog machines — is of value to applications. For instance, “we may ask, what viscosity of materials can you print?”

Therefore, Thompson says, assistance from the printing industry is important to the group. Going forward, he hopes printing companies continue to bring ideas and questions to the organization.

And in the private sector, projects of both large and small scale are underway that will employ PE. Ynvisible Interactive, for example, is developing an electrochromic device (ECD) that provides low power visual indications on a surface that can be changed and displayed without any light emission. The core technology is the electrically driven display and a visual indicator on a flat surface, using PE. With a very low current, the system allows users to create visual changes on the surface, such as printed instructions or images, explains Samuli Stromberg, Ynvisible’s head of busines development for logistics and retail.

In December, the company partnered with RFID company Identiv Inc., providing PE for Identiv’s temperature tracking products that detect temperatures and transmit them via near-field communication (NFC) frequency.

The company’s goal is to provide simple, everyday items with visual indicators. For instance, if temperature sensors are attached to perishable merchandise in the supply chain to prevent spoilage caused by heat (think of a carton of strawberries traveling across the country), and just one out of 100 sensors detects a problem, the printed display could show that status visually, sparing a warehouse worker from scanning all 100 tags with an NFC reader.

The basic concept of electro chemicals has been around for decades, Stromberg says. It is used, for instance in smart windows that dim in office buildings or cars. What Ynvisible does, however, is focus on bringing the electrochromics closer to packaging and other everyday objects through PE.

“We’re doing some trailblazing here with modified technology to new markets,” Stromberg says. “[For instance], because it’s a printed technology, we can accomplish a variety of sizes and shapes.”

For companies doing the innovation, the ideas are coming well ahead of manufacturing capacity, however. “There’s still a chicken and egg situation,” Stromberg says. “Technically we are ready for higher volumes, but will still need to work with our customers and partners to tip the scale to get things moving toward higher volume applications.”

The long-term plan, for companies like Ynvisible, is to work with companies that can partner and provide printing processes that can help move products more quickly to market. “We already know the technology is robust, it’s more about transferring the knowledge and learnings we are accumulating,” he concludes. 

Claire Swedberg
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer and reporter who has been covering RFID and printed electronics for more than a decade.