Printed electronics often involves simple things such as printed conductive patterns to counter the pollution, unreliability, bulk, weight and cost of wires, solder and etched patterns.
The US Army plans to use printed electronics to reduce the weight of a warfighter’s pack by two thirds and give him smart clothing that generates electricity, heats him, cools him, monitors vital signs, acts as a long range antenna and so on.
Printed electronics is mainly about reducing cost but it also involves printed lasers, photodiode arrays and many other sophisticated structures some of which perform better and are more fault tolerant than traditional alternatives.
Most commonly, printed electronics will be used where traditional technology is simply not a feasible solution, such as wallpaper that generates power and doubles as a television and lighting or electronic anti-counterfeiting on 100billion cigarette packets yearly, giving traceability at a cost of only 0.1centsperpackage. Only secondarily will it be used to create improvements to existing electronic products, such as laptop computers, mobile phones and talking gift cards.
The biggest potential of printed electronics lies in organic or combined organic/inorganic structures because they often promise the lowest costs, allied to the fastest printing technology, such as gravure employing water-based inks, with low temperature curing.
Inkjet is also a most popular choice because of its tolerance of uneven substrates and its instant reprogramming. The silicon chip has little to offer beyond logic, memory and a few small sensors. By contrast co-deposition of different devices using printed electronics can exploit the fact that it is economical with a large footprint.
For example, actuators, batteries, powerful capacitors and resistors, photovoltaics and a considerable choice of wide area sensors will be codeposited. This co-deposition of many large area components saves cost and increases reliability, something the silicon chip cannot achieve because it is only economical when very small.
There will be a severe impact on surprisingly few conventional components. Printed and potentially printed electronics has more to do with selling patches, tape, electronic wallpaper and totally new products.
Eventually it will involve spraying electronics on almost anything. However, it may severely impact conventional lighting, when the up-front cost, installation cost and running cost of organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) become superior and they take the form of flexible plastic film. Most other applications of printed electronics and electrics will be huge only because they do new things/create new markets, not primarily because they replace existing solutions.
The biggest opportunity for most forms of printed electronics as it rapidly evolves is for versions on flexible paper or polymer substrates because these will become lowest in cost and most suitable physically for the largest volume applications in future such as smart labels, smart packaging, books, newspapers, signage, posters and billboards. Flexible substrates such as paper or polymer film also give us lowest installation cost compared with today when conventional electronics and electrics can cost as much to install as to buy.
The business models for printed electronics are very different from those for the silicon chip or other conventional forms of electronics or electrics. Indeed, in this new world, electronics and electrics merge. The fundamental drivers of printed electronics are (a) to make new things possible and (b) to replace silicon chips and conventional components where they are hopelessly uneconomic for certain applications or are constraining a mass market to a tiny niche as with talking gift cards or blister packs that record when you took your pills. These blister packs, despite having printed sensors and interconnects, cost US$15 to US$30 so they will never be used beyond drug trials. Fully printed versions could be a few cents each and sell in tens of billions yearly.
Today, the main applications of printed electronics are where it is used in combination with conventional components such as silicon chips and button batteries etc. These applications are usually chosen to be relatively undemanding in technical parameters such as definition, colour quality (of printed electronic displays) and conductance (of antennas and interconnects).
Electrophoretic displays are usually only black and white. They are non-emissive, but they need no electricity other than when the message is changed so they are ideal for signage in supermarkets, airports, etc and for electronic newspapers and magazines. Toshiba and others are learning how to do colour versions. Plastic Logic, with Intel, Seiko Epson, BASF and other giant backers, has the printed transistor backplanes that are key to increasing their market tenfold because they and the display can now be flexible, avoiding the dead end of thin film silicon.
A new marketing paradigm
Printed electronics calls for a new marketing paradigm, where we go back to basics in looking at needs, we create new markets most of the time and our solutions most commonly take the form of an enabling technology such as a way of printing electronics on to things or a reel of electronic tape rather than a stand alone product. This is more the world of 3M, DaiNippon Printing and Toppan Printing than the world of many electronics giants though the latter seek to enter it.
Dr Peter Harrop is with IDTechEx, a consultancy providing research and analysis on RFID, printed and organic electronics and smart packaging, based in Cambridge, UK. www.idtechex.com"