New Business Opportunity: Consider Printed Electronics
Printed electronics has been used for many years in applications such as the printing of conductors for membrane keypads, car windscreen heaters, antennas, electrodes for glucose sensors, bus bars of photovoltaic cells and much more. In recent years, it is being deployed in cars in the form of printed 3D antennas, building integrated PV (BIPV), displays, smart packaging and as sensor electrodes for a variety of medical applications.
There is a huge effort towards printing many other more functional components, from displays to transistors to photovoltaic cells, using the full range of printing technologies — from inkjet to roll-to-roll analog print techniques.
Printed electronics comprises many different enabling printed electronic or electric components, as well as the materials and processes that create them. They are at different points of maturity, growth and profitability. The following sums up the situation for all printed, flexible and organic electronics.
The above chart includes some components not made by printing yet, but using materials that can be printed. Of the above, the market size for predominately printed components will be $5.8 billion in 2018, rising to $8.47 billion in 2029. In 2018, the components printed mainly are conductors, sensors and displays other than OLEDs (electrophoretic, electroluminescent, electrochromic). Virtually no OLED displays are printed or partially printed in 2018, with the first commercial printed OLED display just coming to market in 2017 in low volumes from JOLED — a huge coup given the complexities in achieving this. JOLED intends to scale up manufacturing of printed OLED displays with a view to creating an IP war chest and potentially licensing the technology in the future.
At the manufacturing level, printing offers many benefits over other manufacturing techniques, such as:
- Larger area manufacturing of electronics and electrics
- Deposition of devices onto a range of substrates — including flexible and stretchable devices to biodegradable substrates such as paper
- Reduced material waste — deposit material just where it is needed
- Faster turnaround times
- The ability to make every circuit different using digital printing (such as inkjet)
- Utilize a huge installed global printing base (e.g., flexo, gravure), dispersing manufacturing
Of course, there are also many challenges with printing materials to build electronic components. One has been the availability of materials, but this has been addressed for more than two decades, with companies developing a wide range of printable materials.
Another is the resolution of printing. Printing for graphic arts is developed as good as the eye can see. That is far away from the size of some electronic devices. However, here too, there’s been impressive progress. Today, screen printing commercially achieves printed conductive line widths of about 30 microns with 30 micron gaps. Sub-25 micron printed track widths have been shown. This is used for printing the edge electrodes of touchscreens and printing conductive elements on solar cells. In both cases, there is a strong desire for thinner lines, while retaining the same conductivity.
Others are beginning to use gravure printing, with conductive tracks of 5 microns achieved in production, targeting the creation of a “metal mesh,” which can be used as a transparent conductive layer for touchscreens.
Inkjet printing has been shown to have sub-10 micron resolution, but not reliably. Most inkjet printing applications for printed electronics today use track widths in the range of 50 to 100 microns.
Initially, the go-to-market strategy of many in this industry was to replace an existing electronic device or component, such as OLED displays replacing LCDs, or OPV replacing silicon PV. Existing markets are easier to quantify, but the investment needed to allow the technology to offer a strong benefit over the incumbent can be enormous. Trying to compete on price alone has usually ended in failure where the incumbent technology — with its mature supply chain — was able to reduce cost more easily due to its scale.
On OLEDs, those that could wait it out when the need came have done well. For example, huge investments were made in OLED displays as companies urgently needed to differentiate from LCD products, which has created a large and rapidly growing OLED industry where the technology offers better displays over most LCDs.
Others have focused on the task of meeting unmet needs, such as improving on the limitation of an existing component. One example was replacing Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) for large area touchscreens, where ITO becomes too resistive over large areas and, consequently, alternative transparent conductive films (TCFs) have found a foothold.
In addition, organizations sought to create new products enabled by the benefits of the technology — from the humble printed battery tester printed on more than 2 billion batteries at its peak to the E-ink reflecting displays in e-readers around the world.
What End Users Want
Based on IDTechEx Research interviews with end users and across the supply chain, the strong user pull for the technology is coming from the new form factors of electronics that are possible. New form factors such as flexible displays, batteries and solar allow consumer electronics companies to differentiate their products compared to the usual “rigid boxes of electronics” approach.
This allows companies to price their products higher where uniqueness is desired. This interest is being driven from those involved in the wearables, smart phones, automotive and appliances sectors, in particular.
The differentiation comes from electronics that can fit to curved surfaces, can cover large areas as skins, can be integrated on 3D surfaces, and can be flexible and even stretchable. Among other user benefits, these can bring aesthetic and greatly improved user interfaces. There are also benefits such as space saving and lightweighting, which is of particular interest to those in automotive and consumer electronics.
Additionally, printed and flexible components are increasingly being incorporated with conventional “old school” rigid components, using the best of both worlds where needed, such as a silicon IC chip connected to a printed antenna and sensor array.
However, there are many challenges with the integration of these components, from automating the attachment and integration of very diverse components, to systems design and testing. Then there is also the added challenge of integrating these with 3D surfaces.
Turning into Solution Providers
In some cases printed electronic component suppliers have morphed into solution providers, filling the systems integration void to create new markets leveraging the capability of the technology. A printed transistor is not a product — companies have found they need to build desirable products around the new capabilities enabled.
As a result, now, more than ever before, a diverse range of products based on printed electronics are commercially available or becoming commercially available. These are focussed on real business opportunities with the hype long being over.
Printed electronics open up many new opportunities for printing companies. In some cases, existing equipment can be utilized for printing functional materials. However, the customers and supply value chain are completely different.
The sector is now commercializing quickly, but from a fragmented application landscape, growing to an $8.47 million market in 2029.