Over 2,250 organizations around the world are developing an entirely new platform of materials, manufacturing processes and associated equipment for printed electronics.
This printed electronics industry will eventually become far larger than the semiconductor industry today. It involves the printing of materials to create electrics and electronics, which can be made over large areas (think billboard sized displays), offer new form factors (think flexible, rollable, invisible electronics), can be cheaper (thanks to lower cost materials and manufacturing compared to conventional electronics) and in some areas offer improved performance over conventional electronics.
IDTechEx and other analysts agree that a $300 billion industry is in the making. New Intels of the printed electronics world will be created. But what is the status now and how do we get there?
Over the last decade most investment has been made by chemical and ink companies that ultimately have the most to gain in this new industry. Inks for semiconductors, conductors, dielectrics, light emitting materials, etc, have been developed to be even longer lasting, more reliable, suitable for cheap substrates - polyester film and even paper, require lower processing temperatures, higher performance, etc. From that, printing companies and equipment providers have developed suitable processes and printing technologies for these materials, and now an exciting range of possibilities exist thanks to an array of devices now available, such as batteries, photovoltaics, transistors, new display technologies, sensors, printed conductors, etc.
The challenge today
However, batteries, transistors, sensors, etc, while enabling technologies, are not products. This is the current weakness and challenge for the industry.
IDTechEx has tracked some 500 organizations developing printed or potentially printed transistors, for example (half of whom are universities and research institutes and half companies), but the combined commercial revenue of products using these transistors is, to date, zero (although that is changing this year).
The temptation for those in printed electronics is to try and immediately displace conventional electronics, but at first it usually offers only a marginal improvement in performance, cost or another parameter. Eventually printed electronics will displace some conventional electronics but it will take time and money to gain scale. The other starting point is to create new markets rather than try and replace something that is already there. Perhaps the nature of printed transistors is not to follow Moore's Law initially but to work out what can usefully be done with a dozen transistors or less, that can be applied by means and in volumes and prices not possible before.
New markets and creative design needed
For example, the early successes of printed electronics have been printed battery testers - with about 1 billion of these simple electrical devices printed yearly, cosmetic skin patches enabling faster absorption of cosmetic into the skin, and e-readers. All have created new markets.
However, where printed transistors are similar to the silicon chip is that modularity is needed. Basic circuit functions are required, such as electronics that can provide a changing message, detect presence, provide timing functionality, change an indicator, etc, which can be applicable on their own or combined for many different industries including the military, healthcare, consumer goods, consumer electronics, advertising and media, and much more.
Few understand how these different materials can be co-deposited on the same substrate, or are addressing end user needs by building final product that is needed. However, the technology has caught the attention of consumer goods companies, healthcare companies, media and advertising companies and many others that may not be thought of as traditional electronic/electrical users.
One indicator of this is that of the world's largest show on the topic hosted at the San Jose, CA, Convention Center on Dec 2-3 (www.IDTechEx.com/SanJose). The presenters come from companies that total more than $400 billion of revenue, with Procter & Gamble, the world's largest consumer packaged goods company, opening the keynotes.
The event uniquely focuses on end user requirements and needs. Hear from Kimberly Clark covering applications of conductive materials; Mills-Peninsular Health Services discussing how printed electronics is needed in the healthcare industry; Adidas discussing the need for printed electronics in clothing; Cubic Corporation covering the need in transit and much more. Indeed, a large proportion of the attendees are end user companies that seek to use the technology - view the attendee list at http://www.idtechex.com/printedelectronicsusa09/en/delegates.asp.
New products and exciting new topics
The event features a section on "radical new products", covering, for example, the new printed level sensor strip from Milone Technologies, as well as the printed actuator from Artificial Muscle that is used for haptic feedback in touchscreen devices. The rapid progress with e-readers, printed RFID and other applications such as shelf edge display labels are covered. In addition, the event features the latest progress across the technology portfolio, from stretchable electronics to work on metal oxide transparent transistors and nanosilicon transistors. The progress with printed or flexible displays is covered as is photovoltaics and the vital knowledge in how to print and integrate components.
World's largest events on the topic
This is why the IDTechEx printed electronics events are the largest in the world on the topic. At Printed Electronics USA 2009, more than 800 people have already registered from 28 countries, from afar as South Africa, Vietnam, India, Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, China, Australia and all over Europe and North America. See www.IDTechEx.com/SanJose for full details.
In addition, the European version of the event - Printed Electronics Europe 2010 - will be held in Dresden, Germany on April 13-14. Register now for the best savings at www.IDTechEx.com/peEurope.