We are on the brink of a new age of Plastic Electronics, production costs are tumbling and business opportunities are growing exponentially, yet companies are slow to take up the innovation challenge, according to research from the Advanced Institute of Management Research.
"Yoghurt pots that flash at you from the fridge to say they're mouldy, animated e-papers like Harry Potter's Daily Prophet, smart packaging on pills that beep your doctor when you forget to take them - these Plastic Electronics applications are no longer the stuff of sci-fi," says Dr Zella King of Henley Business School. "Today, Plastic Electronics can already offer huge growth opportunities for companies."
The Plastic Electronics industry is predicted to be worth $335 billion by 2029, and the UK is leading the way on global innovations. Networks of UK universities and companies are collaborating on new technologies and products. Indeed, as a measure of its significance, the UK Government has identified Plastic Electronics as a key area for development and is planning to launch its PE strategy shortly.
The opportunities are vast. The technology is here, and Plastic Electronics products are already being manufactured on a commercial scale. What is lacking, however, is involvement by product designers and market-led end users. Companies in the retail, healthcare, transport, electronics and packaging industries have yet to understand the revolution that is taking place. "They need to realise that this is no longer the domain of electronics companies," says Dr King, "it is open to anyone seeking to add value to their existing portfolio by using new technology."
Of course, smart companies got in at the start. Esquire magazine wowed its readers last year with the first animated e-paper magazine cover. Next year, Plastic Logic Ltd. will launch QUE, its shatterproof, wireless, A4 e-reader that will be no heavier than Vogue to read in bed. And the latest range of intelligent bandages can measure oxygen levels in a patient's wound to determine when they need changing. A tiny antenna, printed into the fabric, then beeps the patient's doctor.
The beauty of Plastic Electronics is that electronic materials can be formed into circuits using cheap core materials. Products can be printed onto flexible surfaces like paper, film or fabric allowing the manufacture of thin, lightweight devices that will not shatter like today's glass-based liquid crystal displays. The costs are so low that, for example, disposable interactive games can be made for consumer promotions, wallpaper can be designed with integral lighting, clothing can be printed with wearable electronics and solar cells.
But innovation is moving fast, and there will only be a small window of opportunity for companies to gain the competitive advantage and a global market share. The research suggests that strong business models are needed to channel the UK's world-leading expertise into the development of Plastic Electronics components and businesses. This will only happen where the collaboration between technology companies and research organisations is led by firms that have a vision of how to create customer value from Plastic Electronics.
The research was carried out by Dr Zella King of Henley Business School, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Zella King is an Innovation Fellow of the Advanced Institute of Management Research.
The report can be downloaded from http://www.aimresearch.org/index.php?page=alias-26