Triumvirate behind printed electronics success


Sony PRS 505 Reader Digital BookThe global market for printed electronics—OLEDs, photovoltaics, sensors, e-paper displays and the like—is estimated at roughly $2.1 billion this year. That figure is forecasted to skyrocket to as much as $52 billion in 2020, according to IDTechEx. How likely it is that this embryonic technology will actually grow by 26 times its current size depends on a convergence of materials, forms and processing.

That’s my distillation of two days of conference sessions and an 85-exhibitor tradeshow at Printed Electronics USA 2010, held last week in Santa Clara, CA. First, the materials: New developments in nanosilver, copper-based and carbon-nanotube inks as well as metal-oxide semiconductors will need to progress enough to provide the high performance necessary for tomorrow’s commercial products. Devices that are flexible, rollable, conformable or large-area—in other words, their form—will do things that conventional electronics can’t, and thus help create new end-use product markets. And a roll-to-roll printing process for printed electronics will need to achieve both mass-production capabilities and gains in performance for individual devices.

How will these three characteristics come together? Certainly the drive, determination, imagination and technical expertise of converters will be vital to success. Your contributions in processing materials into radically new forms have already made possible printed electronics ranging from one-time passcode cards and active-matrix OLED displays to blood glucose-test strips. In that vein, here’s a quick look at a few of the commercial developments displayed at the show’s Demonstration Street.

The new Sony Reader Digital Book 505 (top) uses a 6-in. E Ink® e-paper electrophoretic screen with a nearly 180-deg viewing angle. It weighs about 9 oz and is only 1/3-in. thick.

FACESS Flexible Autonomous Cost-Efficient Energy Source & StorageThe flexible autonomous cost-efficient energy source and storage (FACESS) project (right) is seeking to create a combination of roll-to-roll printed organic solar cells (OSCs) and thin-film batteries (TFBs). These will be integrated into low-cost applications such as posters, wireless keyboards and large-area sensor networks. The three-year, $6-million international collaboration of German, Finnish, French, Belgian and Polish researchers exhibited their finished assembly, which include silicon-based transistor circuitry on foil.

Neuber's Sun Bag Solar-Panel Shoulder BagGerman retailer Neuber’s Sun Bag (left) has a 1.4W solar panel of Konarka Technologies organic photovoltaic cells to turn sunlight into electricity, which can recharge mp3 players, digital cameras, cellphones and game consoles. Said to be the lightest on the market, the Sun Bag weighs only 17 oz, including the solar panel, battery and all charging cables.

Beyond these examples, conference presenters alluded to these possible and/or real products coming down the pipeline:

  • Paper Battery Co.’s PowerWrapper E-Tape—a flexible-battery duct tape with its own energy source.
  • eReaders (like the above-mentioned Sony) that normally use low power may soon have built-in solar rechargers, so you never have to plug them into an AC outlet to recharge them.
  • Fiat and SolarPrint will integrate die-sensitized solar cells into the roof of its cars. The project began this fall.
  • Universal Display Corp.’s 15×15-cm phosphorescent OLEDs has lower power consumption, produces less heat and generates 4X as much light as fluorescent OLEDs.
  • An “electronic noise” sensor on a flexible substrate sniffs wine to 1 ppm to test for spoilage, could signal results through the packaging or labeling.
  • There are 480 million linear ft of functional printing in 30 million Crayola Color Wonder kits.
  • New Boeing 747-800s will use printed electronics in their new Bird-Strike Damage Monitoring Systems, and the Boeing 787 won’t have window shades but instead will have electrochromic layers in the windows that darken at the touch of a button.

My Thoughts: This is my fourth Printed Electronics USA event, and honestly, as with many things in life, the more experience you get with something, the harder it is to find stuff that surprises you. So, what seemed to be missing this year were a lot of those “blue sky” new developments that truly appear to be inspired by “The Jetsons.” Maybe it’s just me, but I’m getting used to thin-film batteries, AMOLEDs and e-paper displays.

For the average consumer, it’s no different. As presenter Luis Rodrigo Pineiro of Crayola said, “In an age surrounded by technology, consumers have grown to expect the ability and sophistication of products to enable technology-transparent experiences. The question is not IF printed electronics will play a role, but how and when.”

Today, printed and flexible electronics are only a tiny fraction of the overall converting field. But this not-so-quiet revolution is ready to break out across many profitable markets. Shouldn’t your company investigate this new technology and how it might impact your business?

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