Conductive Inks: Hybrid Electronics, In-Mold Electronics, Skin Patches
Conductive ink business is inherently wonderfully diverse. This has allowed the industry to rejuvenate itself time and time again and to remain very relevant through generations of product lifecycles. This diversity, however, presents a market segmentation, evaluation, and prioritization challenge for many small and large players across the world.
Our research is designed to help you with that, allowing you to identify and assess existing and emerging markets, to gain deep insights into the business dynamics, to know the key competitors and potential customers, to learn application requirements, and to understand market size and future market potential.
Our research is captured in the IDTechEx report "Conductive Ink Markets 2020-2030: Forecasts, Technologies, Players", which is unrivalled in its depth and breath. It is based on more than eight years of research. The authors have had first-hand industry experience and the information herein is based on extensive primary research. Indeed, more than 150 interviews, 35 conferences and tradeshows, multiple projects, etc underpin the research. The report covers numerous existing and emerging applications. For nearly each covered application, it describes the market dynamics, assesses the drivers, identifies key technologies, highlights key prototypes and products, mentions key players, reviews the addressable market, and offers market sizing and projection.
In this article, we briefly discuss applications in In-Mold electronics, flexible hybrid electronics, e-textiles, and skin patches. In a previous article, we had explored automotive, 5G, electronic packaging, and photovoltaic applications. In subsequent articles, we will cover 3D printed electronics, printed sensors (piezoelectric, piezoresistive, biosensor, dielectric stain sensors, etc), RFID, PCB printing, and many other existing and emerging applications.
Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE)
This emerging technology frontier allows printed electronics to be combined with, or hybridized with, rigid ICs and electronics, thus marrying the best of both worlds. Indeed, a limiting factor thus far for printed electronics has been that many components, such as logic and memory, are either non-existing and don't come close to matching the cost and performance of non-printed technologies.
FHE is of course not straightforward to implement. Thinned ICs are being developed to enable flexibility. Novel attachment techniques, such as low-T solder or photonic sintering, are being developed to enable the transition from the expensive PI to the low-cost and low-temperature PET. At the first instance, digital printing is likely to be employed, cutting turnaround times, allowing customization, and producing limited units. In the longer run, high-throughput roll-to-roll techniques will be required. This will require innovation on rapid pick-and-place on a roll able to handle thin ICs. This is indeed a major innovation opportunity.
All in all, in the long term, this technology will enable flexible, complex, and relatively large circuits to be rapidly produced. Imagine the multi-billion-unit RFID business but imagine more complex and larger area circuit lines as well as larger and more powerful ICs. This is the long-term transition.
Conductive inks will play a central role here. Rapid sinter/cure technologies will be needed to enable high-throughput production. Low-cost is also essential. To address this, new copper formulations are being offered that seek overcome the cost/performance trade-offs and to enable simple and rapid sintering. Narrow linewidth and high-throughput printing will also be needed to support complex ICs with many closely spaced I/O pins. This will be an increasingly important area. At first, the industry will be led by many well-funded research centres. However, the transition to commercial production will soon take place in earnest.
To learn more about the present and the future of this field, about the key challenges and opportunities, about the likely volumes across many sub-segments, and about the role and the market for conductive inks in flexible hybrid electronics please see the IDTechEx report "Flexible Hybrid Electronics 2020-2030: Applications, Challenges, Innovations and Forecasts".
In-Mold Electronics is projected to exceed $1Bn by 2029 at the product level across automotive, consumer goods, wearables, and home appliance applications. The progress will start with smaller and simpler devices launching in areas where reliability and product lifetime requirements are more relaxed. It will then transition into more challenging markets. In other words, this time around, the industry will probably learn to walk before it runs. We expect the automotive market to adopt IME products starting from the 2022-2023 period.
IME is no longer a young field. The first products were launched more than five years ago. Conductive ink innovations have played a key role in enabling this method. Today, many inks are available. Suppliers are seeking to bridge the conductivity gap with standard conductive inks, to improve reliability individually and as part of a stack, and to extend the limits of stretchability. The innovations are mainly on the formulation step and the powder requirements are rather relaxed. The product development works have been undergoing as such the early pioneers are well placed to reap the rewards when the first generation of products launches. Once the requirements become more standard more suppliers can enter the business.
To learn more about the in-mold electronics industry as a whole, please see the IDTechEx report "In-Mold Electronics 2020-2030: Technology, Market Forecasts, Players". This report provides a comprehensive assessment of this field. It outlines the innovation trends and challenges, highlights key suppliers and product performance levels, paints a picture of the value chain, showcases latest prototypes and products, offers market forecasts at product and ink level.
This is already a major business. Indeed, IDTechEx estimates that skin patches generated $7.5Bn in 2018 and forecasts this to rise to over $20Bn by 2029. Several skin patch product areas, particularly in diabetes management and cardiovascular monitoring, have superseded incumbent options in established markets to create billions of dollars of new revenue each year for the companies at the forefront of this wave.
Whilst many people may imagine skin patches to be thin, highly conformable devices that sit close to the skin, the reality is that many of the most successful products today are still bulky devices. Future developments utilising flexible, stretchable and conformal electronic components seek to change this. This is important because skin patches offer continuous monitoring and are thus worn for extended period. As such, convenience is critical. Furthermore, stretchable electronics can allow more and/or longer electrodes to be integrated without compromising user comfort, boosting the locations the skin patch can sense.
Conductive inks are an enabling component of this long-term trend. Indeed, already fully or partly printed skin patches are commercially launched in cardiovascular, diabetic foot, temperature, respiration, blood oximetry, and humidity/moisture monitoring, as well as muscle simulation and sensing. The printed element almost invariably includes conductive inks. The ink requirements here often extend beyond stretchability and include, for example, the ability to withstand harsh hydrogels, high conductivity to pick up weak signals, adhesion to stretchable substrates, and so on. Early close engagement with this field will bear fruits.
Please see the IDTechEx report "Electronic Skin Patches 2019-2029" to find out more. Here you can learn about the skin patch business, finding out about general trends, market sizes, and business dynamics. You can identify companies and products using some printed element and can examine the future potential of printing in this field. Furthermore, you can evaluate the role that conductive inks will play in this field.
This market is already expected to exceed $100M in 2020 across all application sectors at the textile level. The snapshot of the e-textile application readiness levels shows a robust pipeline. Applications such as elite sports biometric (chest straps or apparel), heated clothing, illuminated apparel, high-fashion e-textile apparel, carpet pressure sensors and similar extend from the early commercial sales to full market penetration. There are also many applications at early development phases, rendering the pipeline deep and robust.
Despite all these, there are many challenges. There is a lack of standards or even clearly defined product requirements. The supply chain is immature, although efficiency is improving with co-located manufacturing. Critically, most works are in small volumes, which allows the small firms or project teams to survive. However, there are still only few consistent success stories demonstrating volume manufacturing. However, these challenges are not showstoppers.
The technology options for conductivity in e-textiles are multiple, but stretchable conductive inks are beginning to find their space. They can be added post-production, thus requiring little change to the manufacturing process. The device shape and properties can also be better controlled than with fibre-based solutions. Furthermore, the inks can also offer more stretchability than many alternative solutions.
The ink performance has improved over years with the elongation-induced conductivity changes becoming much more supressed and predictable. The relationship between substrate/encapsulant properties and the inks are better known and optimized. A range of formulations now exist to address varying needs. The washability figures however also improved, although this is largely dictated by the encapsulant.
Overall, the supplier numbers mushroomed around 2015/2017. These supplies have been seeding the market, exploring the applications, and painstakingly finding cases where there is a business case and ruling out the rest. As such, the business is likely to grow, although sustaining the growth is not easy because one requires a robust and continuous application pipeline since consumption per part is low.
To learn more about this market please see the IDTechEx report "E-textiles and Smart Clothing 2020-2030: Technologies, Markets and Players". Here you will read the latest dynamics shaping the e-textile market as whole. You will understand the key innovations and technological improvements that have evolved the ink technology. You will learn about the key supplier and past and present products and prototypes. Finally, the report will provide a market forecasts at the level of e-textiles product as well as conductive inks.