Printed electronics: The opportunity (and the challenge)
A $300 billion industry is in the making. IDTechEx and other analysts agree that the “printed electronics” industry will eventually become far larger than the semiconductor industry today — over 2,000 organizations around the world are already developing an entirely new platform of materials, processes, and equipment for printing electrics and electronics.
Why printed electronics? They can:
- be made over large areas — think billboard-sized displays;
- offer new form factors — think flexible, rollable, invisible electronics;
- cost less than conventional electronics — thanks to lower cost materials and manufacturing; and
- offer improved performance over conventional electronics in some areas.
Over the last decade, chemical and ink companies (which ultimately may have the most to gain in this new industry) have been developing inks for semiconductors, conductors, dielectrics, light emitting materials, and other components to be even longer lasting, more reliable, and suitable for cheap substrates such as polyester film and paper, which require lower processing temperatures. Printing companies and equipment providers have responded by developed suitable processes and printing technologies for these materials.
Now there are many exciting possibilities thanks to an array of available devices: batteries, photovoltaics, transistors, new display technologies, sensors, printed conductors, and more.
However, batteries, transistors, and sensors are enabling technologies — not products. Of 500 IDTechEx-tracked organizations (50% universities & research institutes, 50% corporations) developing printed or organic transistors, the combined commercial revenue of products using these transistors is…zero. (Although that’s changing this year).
While it’s tempting for those in printed electronics to try to displace conventional electronics, printed electronics usually offers only a marginal improvement in performance or cost. And while printed electronics will eventually displace some conventional electronics, it will take time and money to gain scale.
The need for new markets and creative design
The key may be to create new markets rather than try and replace something already there. For example, printed battery testers have been the early successes of printed electronics: about 1 billion of these simple electrical devices are printed yearly for e-readers and cosmetic skin patches that enable faster absorption of ointment. All have created new markets.
Perhaps the nature of printed transistors is not to follow Moore’s law initially, but to work out how a dozen or fewer transistors can be applied in different ways, volumes, and prices not possible before. Where printed transistors do mimic the silicon chip is the need for modularity. The industry needs basic circuit functions such as electronics that detect presence, provide timing functionality, change an indicator, provide a changing message, and so on — all of these can be applied on their own or combined for applications in diverse industries.
But few understand how these different materials can be co-deposited on the same substrate. There are few companies building products that address specific end-user needs better met through printed electronics. However, the technology has caught the attention of consumer goods, healthcare, media, consumer electronics, advertising, and many other companies that may not have traditionally been thought of as electronic/electrical users. It’s now time to address the opportunity.
Find out more
- Attend the IDTechEx Printed Electronics USA conference and tradeshow at the San Jose Convention Center in California from December 2-3 2009. The printed electronics industry’s largest gathering, presenters come from companies totalling more than $400 billion of revenue. Issues from applications to technology will be discussed, and Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer packaged goods company, will be delivering the opening keynote.
- Read Printed Electronics World, the IDTechEx free journal on this topic, online.
Raghu Das is CEO of IDTechEx (www.IDTechEx.com). He has a B.A. in Natural Sciences and M.A. in Physics from Cambridge University. Raghu has been closely involved with the development of RFID and printed electronics for over nine years, and has been engage in consulting activities throughout Europe, United States, Asia, and the Middle East. He has lectured on RFID, smart packaging, and printed/organic electronics at over 250 events and conferences around the world and is author of several IDTechEx publications. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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