Europe at the heart of innovations in printed electronic sensors
As the next Printed Electronics Europe event is now less than 2 weeks away, it is opportune to take a closer look at the successes of the printed electronics industry in Europe. One of the areas where Europe is making a huge impact is in printed sensors.
This is not to say that R&D in America or Asia have not been on par, however European organisations have been particularly innovative in identifying new applications for printed sensors. And in the race for the commercialisation of new emerging sensor technologies, it seems that many leaders are based in Europe.
Dr Davor Sutija, CEO of Thinfilm, speaking at Printed Electronics Europe in Berlin last year (©IDTechEx)
For instance, Thinfilm has integrated the technology from PST Sensors to demonstrate the first printed temperature sensing system. The company, which is headquartered in Norway, envisions mass-produced smart labels for a fraction of the cost of conventional time-temperature loggers. Thinfilm's CEO, Dr Davor Sutija, thinks system integration is key to the success of printed sensors: "Thinfilm believes the most exciting opportunities for printed electronic sensors are as a part of integrated printed electronic systems, because that is where printed electronics becomes the enabler for ubiquitous intelligence — the Internet of Everything", he said.
In Finland, Clothing+ has become a leader in e-textile, designing and manufacturing wearable sensors that use electrodes directly printed on fabric.
But what makes Europe so dynamic in the field of printed sensors?
"This is probably thanks to the combination of complementary expertise in the organic materials industry and research and product development for sensors coming from the semiconductor industry, with a market pull of different industries in France, Germany and the UK", said Laurent Jamet, co-founder and director of business development at Isorg. His company is leading the commercialisation of organic photodetectors and is exhibiting again at Printed Electronics Europe this year to demonstrate new products: "We will show our latest developments for large area image sensors, with the first image sensor on plastic jointly developed with Plastic Logic, and photonic arrays for displays' user interfaces."
Dr Danick Briand, who is leading the EnviroMEMS group at EPFL (Switzerland), also thinks the know-how that has been accumulated over the years helps the industry: "Developing sensors components and systems require specific competences and Europe is therefore in a very good position to capitalize on the emerging printed sensors segment thanks to its strong industrial sector in that field", he said.
Another key factor is the number of printed electronics centers of excellence that have been set up in several countries. Mostly government funded, they offer facilities for prototyping and process development.
In the case of Isorg, the company spun out of a research center in Grenoble after a a successful initial collaboration.
"Our technology was developed in partnership with the industrial research lab CEA-LITEN, based on an original application and product vision for large area image sensors and photonic sensors on plastic", Jamet said.
The European Union also encourages collaboration between academia and industry by funding consortium projects.
For example, one project known as SIMS (Smart Integrated Miniaturised Sensor System) has focused on developing a point-of-care biosensing platform using printed electronics. The project, led by the University of the West of England, has recently achieved a milestone by integrating a printed cholesterol sensor with a printed battery and a printed display.
Another project, FLASHED (Flexible Large Area Sensors for Highly Enhanced Displays), has recently been granted €2.8m of funding. The project aims to create new ways to interact with a flexible display by using PyzoFlex, a piezoelectric sensor array which was developed by Joanneum Research and the Media Interaction Lab in Austria.
Dr Briand is convinced that the support from the EU is necessary to foster strong collaborations. "This is crucial to bring together the best expertise in Europe to achieve innovations. Competences and know-how can be geographically far from the industrial players that have an interest. These instruments allow bridging them", he said.
He has worked on a European project called FlexSMELL, designing an olfaction system for smart packaging applications: "We are going to show a fully printed multi-sensor platform for environmental sensing interfaced to a printed RFID label, which was developed at Holst Centre in the Netherlands. The label can find applications in the field of logistic of perishable goods."
There has been a considerable amount of interest in printed sensors recently and the industry is changing rapidly. End-users of the technology and integrators are looking for sensors that will enable the Internet-of-Things. There is also a huge trend in favour of wearable technologies and e-textiles.
By hosting the Printed Electronics Europe event, IDTechEx helps many end-users to connect with the main suppliers and to keep up to date with the latest announcements. A detailed analysis is also available in the recently published IDTechEx report Printed and Flexible Sensors 2014-2024: Technologies, Players, Forecasts.