Without question silicon chips have had a massive impact on our lives since their invention almost sixty years ago. However, there are many applications where their cost, fragility and time to market mean they are not viable. For such applications, a new disruptive technology is emerging which could ultimately have an even bigger impact to humankind than silicon had. This is the ability to print electronics and electronic components, using inks and conventional printing techniques.
What if you could print electronic circuits providing diagnostic or added value features on every package at a similar price to printing normal graphics on every package? What if you could print a wallpaper which could change to any pattern you wanted when you wanted and was also your room lighting and a TV screen? All these and other dreams are now becoming possible.
The new electronics toolkit
The technology includes being able to print a range of electronic and electrical components - such as transistor circuits, displays, sensors, power, interconnects and even sound actuators. These will eventually be printed using similar materials on similar printing equipment and have another advantage of being flexible where required (making them more robust) and being able to make every device different where digital printing is used.
The technology, forecasts and major players
Most development work is being done using organic semiconductors - plastics which can be used to make transistors and other components. Unlike silicon wafers which need to be etched - a subtractive process - organic semiconductors can be added to a substrate in order to build up the component. Printing is the preferred choice of developers because it can be done very quickly, manufacturing can be dispersed, and it can be very low cost. Others are also working on non-organic metallic based inks which can be printed to build various components and even carbon nanotubes. At least 200 companies are developing these new components, including heavy weights such as Samsung, Hewlett Packard, 3M, Sharp and IBM to spin outs and VC funded developers such as Thin Film Electronics, Plastic Logic and PolyIC. The size of the industry is impressive - IDTechEx forecast a $300Bn industry in 2025 for printed electronics - more than the entire silicon industry today - but then this is a technology which will do more than silicon does.
Progress to 2006
Some aspects of the technology will take longer to realize than others, but already a large amount is happening now. For example, almost 70% of the flash memory based MP3 players use an organic LED (OLED) screen rather than a conventional LCD display. These offer brightness and viewing angle benefits over LCDs. Samsung have developed 40 inch OLED TV displays which will be available for sale from 2007. Not all of these are printed today but that is the end game developers are working towards. In contrast to these high end displays, in 2003 chemical company DOW printed a very low cost electrochromic display onto a valentines card. Press a button on the front of the card and the display changes colour. This is similar to the printed battery tester Duracell and others have used on their battery packs for years, in order to add value and enhance their brands. Hasbro have launched games and toys incorporating printed electronics to make them more interactive as have McDonald's with interactive placemats in Australia. Now companies such as Plastic Logic are commercializing printed displays and their drivers which will be used on mobile phones, offering a benefit of being much more robust because they do not have to be based on glass as with traditional displays.
It's more than printed, flexible, organic/plastic
None of these terms alone are suitable in describing this vast enabling technology. For example, although companies are developing printed electronics, not all work today uses printing as the deposition method. One advantage of the technology is that it can be flexible, but again a lot of the work today is done on glass or other rigid substrates. Others refer to the topic as organic semiconductors but this ignores non organic non silicon semiconductors and conductors, such as metal particle based versions. Therefore for simplicity, we refer to the whole topic as printed electronics. Ultimately we believe printing will be the most popular way of depositing these electonics due to its speed and additive nature, although we of course fully cover non printed means.
New markets and new opportunities
Learn about the technologies and needs
To guide you through the technologies and their application, IDTechEx will bring it all together for you at the annual Printed Electronics conference in Cambridge, UK on April 20-21 2006.
This fourth IDTechEx printed electronics conference uniquely covers:
- The application of the emerging printed electronics toolkit
- Progress in displays, thin film transistor circuits, sensors, power and sound
- Global developments from companies around the world
- Materials and manufacturing techniques
- Investing in printed/organic electronics