Printed electronics – the sky is the limit

Microelectronics International

ISSN: 1356-5362

Article publication date: 31 July 2007



(2007), "Printed electronics – the sky is the limit", Microelectronics International, Vol. 24 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Printed electronics – the sky is the limit

Printed electronics – the sky is the limit

As we learn to print electronics, we open up a cornucopia of opportunities. It is so vast that, we still fail to perceive its full extent. For example, two years ago printed electronics was seen as a route to low-cost, flexible electronics, sometimes on wide areas, as with solar cells, labels and electronic wallpaper. Just low-cost has become dramatic, with the Indian Government funding three of its institutions in 2007 that together promise to develop a $47 laptop.

One year ago, there was much talk of rollable electronics giving us the phone, PDA, laptop, etc. that has a large screen that snaps back into place when it is not needed. Foldable electronics also started to look a good idea and several foldable products are now on sale.

This year we have several patents on edible printed electronics and stretchable electronics for healthcare, garments and so on. Conformal, fault tolerant, each one unique – the list extends by the minute. We have transparent electronics employed in the prototype watch face that generates electricity and some new printed solar cells generate electricity even in the dark, using heat. That makes “solar” a misnomer, so we have returned to the technical term “photovoltaics.” That market alone will become very large and multi- faceted, so there will be many printed technologies addressing the different photovoltaic needs.

Some of the many different requirements addressed by printed photovoltaics are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

The battery market will similarly grow and fragment, as illustrated by the market thrust of some of the participants shown in Table I.

Table I

Consider the fact that printed electronics is lightweight. Of course, that matters in space travel, but it also makes the installation of solar panels cheaper and quicker and it makes the car use less fuel. Both are now the target of printed electronics projects.

In researching the new report “Introduction to printed electronics” in 2007, IDTechEx has come up with many surprises. For example, for now, we should probably call it electronic printing, not printed electronics, if we are to describe the most common applications. This is because, most of the time, we are replacing or enhancing printing, not penetrating the traditional electrics markets. A printed RFID label with no silicon chip in it is low enough in cost to replace the barcode, something not possible with the old silicon chip RFID because it is too expensive. AC electroluminescent displays are screen printed and they replace conventional printed signage and advertising material on buses and buildings. This animated light-emitting colour display is far more compelling and effective than dead print. Electrophoretic displays, also screen printed, are replacing books and shelf edge displays and promotions in shops by being reprogrammable and therefore practicable to change more often. They do not even need electricity unless the image is being changed. Consequently, for most of their life they are not electronic at all. From electronic billboards to interactive board games and smart packaging, what is usually replaced is conventional print, not electronics. Later will come the replacement of traditional electronics but even then the creation of totally new markets may be more commonplace.

IDTechEx investigates all these trends and shows how they lead to the smart shop, office, airport, transport system and consumer goods industry and much more besides. This revolution involves radical improvements to the human interface being affordable and practicable – resulting in disposable packages sold in large volumes that change colour, aroma and texture, control entry and even speak to the consumer. New drug delivery systems, smart letters and much more are around the corner. The technology will eventually enable us to spray electronics and power generation circuits onto almost anything. Radically new physics and chemistry is being employed, from quantum dots to self-healing surfaces and biologically grown electronics.

This report looks at the many technologies, both inorganic and organic, that are being used and the progress in commercialising the many products that result. There are paradoxes along the way, such as organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) being theoretically most important in that they could replace almost all lighting, signage and displays and form photodetector arrays when run in reverse. Hundreds of organisations have piled into developing OLEDs yet an increasing number are abandoning the chase because no one can produce a long-life, flexible OLED of wide area, which is the largest market need. This is not “just around the corner” after all.

Another paradox is that everyone is saying that printed electronics makes new things possible, yet most suppliers are simply trying to make slightly better screens for mobile phones, television and so on. That is the dour result of engineering led projects. By looking at the really savvy players and reading the future, the IDTechEx experts show the better ways and how many billion dollar companies will be created from these new technologies, particularly where artists, creative marketing people, brand mangers and others contribute to this whole new ballgame. Timelines are given in this report.

For more information please contact the author Dr Peter Harrop at:

Dr Peter HarropIDTechEx

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