Flexible Electronics: The Big Winner So Far in Printed Electronics
Exploring the commercialization of flexible electronics, one of the key focus points of this year's Printed Electronics USA event on November 15-16 in Santa Clara, CA.
Oct 18, 2017 Raghu Das
IDTechEx has studied the printed electronics industry for over 15 years. This encompasses a range of technologies that cannot be summarized in one word since it includes technologies that are printed, as well as those that are not yet printed but based on new materials including organic based materials (such as semiconductors and conductors), or other materials including inorganic semiconductors that can be patterned in novel and potentially lower cost ways than conventional silicon integrated circuits.
This whole area - which we refer to as printed electronics for simplicity, has enabled different components and applications which are at different points of maturity, growth and success. A snapshot of the 2017 market size for printed, organic and flexible electronics is shown in the figure below, based on the latest IDTechEx research for the report "Printed, Organic & Flexible Electronics Forecasts, Players & Opportunities 2017-2027"
Source: IDTechEx research report "Printed, Organic & Flexible Electronics Forecasts, Players & Opportunities 2017-2027"
User Pull: Flexible Electronics
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 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 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 touch screens, where ITO becomes too resistive over large areas and so alternative transparent conductive films (TCFs) 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 over 2 billion batteries at its peak to the E-ink reflecting displays in e-readers around the world.
Based on IDTechEx 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 the uniques are desired. This interest is being driven from those involved in 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, can be flexible and even stretchable. Among other user benefits, these can bring aesthetic and greatly improved user interfaces. Then there are the benefits including space saving and lightweighting, of particular interest to those in automotive and consumer electronics.
Exploring the commercialization of flexible electronics is one of the key focuses of this year's Printed Electronics USA event, held in Santa Clara on Nov 15-16; the world's largest event on the topic with over 200 exhibitors, over 220 speakers and with 3,500 attendees expected. Below we look at some of the sessions at the event covering the flexible electronics opportunity.
Next Generation Human-Machine Interaction (HMI) Technologies
This session in the conference covers technology developments and case studies including touch, haptics and gesture. Learn from companies such as Texas Instruments, Novasentis, Ultrahaptics, Freer Logic, Cambridge Mechatronics and many more about the new components enabling differentiated and new opportunities for human machine interfaces.
Structural Electronics and 3D Printed Electronics
Presenters will cover topics ranging from In Mold Electronics to smart skins. Examples include Optomec, where one customer GE use their deposition systems to print sensors on turbine blade surfaces, allowing the company to monitor fatigue of individual blades and only replace them as needed, not unnecessarily based on estimation as before. Fiat Research will be presenting on the topic too, covering the latest work with using In Mold Electronics for smart surfaces in vehicles. Others presenting on case studies and technology progress include the Holst Center, Eastman Kodak and TactoTek.
Source: IDTechEx research report "Structural Electronics 2017-2027"
Display and Lighting Innovations
Over $10 Billion has been invested for OLED manufacturing in the last 18 months, with the focus on building OLED manufacturing facilities that produce displays on plastic substrates. Initially, this makes the display thinner and more robust (compared to those on glass), but also allows companies to sell curved displays and finally will enable commercial flexible displays. Presenting companies such as Universal Display Corporation will cover the current progress with flexible OLED displays and others will cover ground breaking work on stretchable displays (Seoul National University) and the partial inkjet printing of barrier films for OLEDs from Kateeva.
It's not just about OLED displays of course with many new display technologies also covered: from color reflective displays with presentations from CLEARink and Etulipa to flexible printed LED lighting by Nth Degree.
Stretchable Electronics and E-textiles
Wearables, being a key driver of flexible electronics, is covered through extensive sessions with speakers from Stanford University, MacDermid, Myant, Tilt Textiles, SRI and many more presenting. The event has over 220 speakers overall with many other relevant sessions related to flexible electronics including Hybrid Electronics; Printed and Flexible Electronics Materials and Manufacturing; Flexible Sensors; Energy Harvesting and more.
More End Users at Printed Electronics USA
Crucially, the event focusses on end user needs with presenting organizations including JCDecaux ($3.5 Billion outdoor advertising company), OSRAM ($5 Billion lighting company), Fiat (the Fiat Chrysler Automobile group has sales over $120 Billion) plus many others including Huawei, Samsung, HTC, Mercedes Benz, the US Army and more. See the full agenda here.
Indeed, IDTechEx has worked closely with end users on the program to ensure it covers the topics that will benefit adopters. For example, the event awards are judged by companies including Procter & Gamble, Google and Huawei.