By Sophie Verstraelen
The path that printed electronics had to take to reach the market from the laboratories was certainly not a simple one. But this new technology has now arrived in mass production and has already established itself in many industrial sectors - often without users even knowing they are utilizing them in their everyday lives.
A variety of applications already commonplace
Many industrial sectors such as consumer electronics, household appliances, the automotive and packaging industries as well as the health care sector already have products on the market which are based on organic and printed electronics. For example, printed antennas and sensors are already being used in large quantities in the automotive sector. Millions of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) can be found in cell phone displays and are now also used in wearables and large-screen televisions. In the field of health care, meanwhile, printed electronics are primarily deployed in diagnostics and packaging.
The large number of applications not only demonstrates how many possible uses there are for printed electronics, but also how complex the topic is. And because many of these technologies are still undergoing development, it is all the more important that the companies which are active in this field come to a joint assessment. The following questions need to be answered:
- Which products will be launched?
- When can this be expected?
- Which processes and materials will be required for this?
These questions are examined in the OE-A Roadmap - a flagship project of the OE-A. The objective here is to give industry, research and the public sector a joint basis for the planning of their development and investment activities. The development of printed electronics in the various industrial sectors indicates the increasing maturity of this industry. With the growing use of this technology, a change from "technology push" to "market pull" is taking place, which is defined by the needs of the end users. This is primarily because printed electronics offers tangible advantages with regard to integration, costs or design compared to classic electronics. The new OE-A Roadmap reflects this development.
The experts of the OE-A anticipate continued strong growth over the coming years, which will be driven by new and improved materials as well as machines, optimized products and new component and system designs. However, there are still areas in which fundamental technical hurdles, so-called red brick walls, have to be overcome. These are also addressed in the Roadmap in order to illustrate the need for development in each respective case.
International growth underpinned
According to the British market research institute Smithers Pira, the young industrial sector grew from 5.6 billion US-dollars in 2010 to a sales volume of 26.9 billion US-dollars in 2016. OLED displays account for around 75 percent of this, as they are integrated in smartphones and tablets on a mass scale and the market share of OLED televisions is continuing to grow.
But printed sensors in test strips used by diabetics to measure their blood sugar level also have a large share of the market. The value of the printed electronics market is expected to grow by around 14 percent by 2020.
Positive development expected
The OE-A members anticipate further growth along the entire value chain. The current business climate survey of the OE-A shows that more than 80 percent of companies expect their industrial sector to enjoy further positive development in the coming year. Within the scope of the biannual business climate survey, the OE-A assesses the sentiment of its international members with regard to sales revenues, incoming orders, investment and employment. The members of the OE-A enjoyed a very successful year in 2017 with projected sales growth of 13 percent.
The companies expect further improvement and sales growth of 16 percent in 2018, and this in all regions and throughout the entire value chain. Due to the funding of new and improved materials, machines and processes as well as new application designs, this positive growth will also continue in the coming years.
The most interesting fields of application for printed electronics with the greatest potential are currently the Internet of Things, wearables and automobile applications. Smart labels, smart watches, smart clothing and dashboards are just a few of the end products in which printed electronics will be used.
Printed electronics have matured
These positive results have also been reflected in the development of key parameters since the first OE-A Roadmap. Now that the strong research orientation of the initial period has declined, the technology now impresses in factors relevant to industry such as reliability, capital expenditure, costs, environmental impact and standardization. Today there are hardly any differences between application and technological parameters, thereby underlining the increasing maturity of the printed electronics sector.
Development of innovations
Example applications for printed electronics are summarized in the "Roadmap for Organic and Printed Electronics Applications". These include products in all application fields that have already entered the market, as well as others that the OE-A experts believe will find their way onto the market in the short, medium or long term.
Users' past experience with new technologies demonstrates surprising areas of deployment. As such, it is likely that there will also be new applications that the developers have not yet foreseen in the future. For example, when it comes to flexible and OLED displays, experts anticipate that there will be flexible, rollable OLED televisions in the future, as well as displays in three-dimensional forms.
The rise of hybrid systems
One important development identified by the OE-A is hybrid systems that combine printed and classic silicon-based components. Hybrid systems are an interesting topic, as they combine the best of both worlds: the high processing power of silicon electronics with the flexible, thin and light properties of organic and printed electronics. These systems combine the different core functions in order to perform complex, (partially) automated tasks that classic electronics cannot fulfill on their own. This combination of technologies is particularly suited for use with the Internet of Things, smart labels and also in health care, including measuring the shelf life or temperature of perishable medications or foodstuffs. Hybrid systems are especially interesting for smart patches, which are sensors worn on the body for measuring values such as temperature, blood oxygen and X-ray radiation, or as OLED ceilings used in light therapy for premature and new-born babies. The NFC tag integrated in the title page of the OE-A brochure is one such smart label. The combination of printed antennas, conductors and an integrated silicon chip is an impressive example of a hybrid system. Products that combine both technologies will also contribute further toward establishing printed electronics on the market and bringing about new applications.
Meeting the challenges
However, organic and printed electronics still have to overcome hurdles and challenges in order to make the breakthrough in more areas. To increase the mass-market suitability of the technology, further advances in manufacturing processes, encapsulation, materials and standardization are necessary. The OE-A Roadmap is therefore an important basis for the worlds of industry, politics and business when planning development and products.
Most manufacturing processes used for printed electronics were derived from the printing sector and electronics production and adapted to specific requirements. There is still a need for optimization in some aspects here, in particular when it comes to throughput and yield. Encapsulation is also an important issue. Although research and development have made it possible to encapsulate the sensitive organic semiconductors in such a way that cell phones with OLED displays or organic solar cells on house facades last for many years, there is still room for improvement in this regard.
Red brick walls identified
The red brick walls differ greatly from one application to the next and encompass both processes and materials to an equal degree. The OE-A Roadmap has identified red brick walls in costs, processes, encapsulation, scalability, process monitoring, yield, standardization and guidelines.
These challenges cannot be regarded separately as they are interlinked. Improved materials can reduce encapsulation requirements. Resolution and repeat accuracy are dependent on the various printing processes and can even vary in accordance with the throughput. Improved scalability and a higher yield reduce costs, while the improvement of processes raises the yield and performance.
In order to identify the red brick walls, the organic electronics community needs to pool its efforts. In this way, most problems can be resolved quickly. Longer-term strategies, financial support and new cooperations throughout the value-added chain are necessary to overcome the current hurdles.