The annual IDTechEx Printed Electronics Europe conference held in Cambridge in April had grown very strongly to over 330 delegates from 20 countries. There were four optional Masterclasses and four optional visits to exciting local organisations concerned with printed electronics. The first day of the conference was opened by Dr Peter Harrop of IDTechEx, who took the pulse of the industry.
He saw the industry growing faster and further than the silicon chip, not least because it embraces electrics as well as electronics. He pointed to the need for a global printed electronics trade association and suggested that it could promote an environmental message, possibly by encouraging the replacement of such things as cadmium, lithium and carcinogenic solvents currently used by parts of the industry. Indeed he questioned the trend to "cover the world" in precious metals such as indium and silver. Alternatives are needed here too.
He noted how, surprisingly, the Europeans are in the lead in laying down production facilities for printed electronics from photovoltaics to flexible electrophoretic displays, ac electroluminescent displays, transistor circuits and photosensor arrays. He highlighted Cambridge and Dresden as the primary centres of the vibrant European printed electrics industry. Globally, he saw a big swing to inorganic and hybrid materials in printed electronics with abandonment of the dream that organics will replace everything. Examples are:
• Printed transistor semiconductors - Some organic some inorganic
• Printed conductors - Inorganic
• Printed ac electroluminescent displays - Inorganic
• Printed electrophoretic displays - Inorganic/ organic
• Thin film/ printed DSSC photovoltaics - Inorganic/ organic
• Thin film CdTe photovoltaics - Inorganic
• Thin Film/ printed copper indium gallium diselenide CIGS photovoltaics - Inorganic
• Printed MnO2Zn batteries - Inorganic
He looked at the phases of evolution of printed electronics, with markets fragmenting into those with many different needs leaving room for almost everyone. He saw paradise delayed in terms of long life flexible OLED displays and lighting and organic semiconductors with operating parameters to rival inorganic ones. The favoured printing technologies are polarising to the versatility of ink jet on the one hand and the very high speed of gravure and flexo on the other with less scope for intermediate printing technologies although screen printing will remain popular for small runs of the simpler technologies.
He felt that the operational parameters that held back the various technologies were different but warned that a shortage of inspirational new product designs and marketing positions was also a big impediment to the industry. However, IDTechEx had scoured the world for truly inspirational developers and the rest of the day was a sequence of riveting presentations by these remarkable people.
He saw the easy wins today being more concerned with replacing and enhancing conventional printing rather than impacting the electronics or electrical industry. That includes e-books, e-posters, e-billboards, electronic gaming cards and RFID replacing barcodes. He felt that not enough was being done with paper, however.
Peter Herdman of Arjo Wiggins took up this theme with his "Augmented Paper", basically paper that senses the position of a special pen thanks to a polythiophene pattern inside it. Organic conductive ink is preferred because it is easy to obscure with a white overlayer whereas shiny metal layers are not. Peter noted that paper had been gradually optimised for human use over more than 2000 years yet the psychology of using it is still not fully understood. Certainly it is an excellent biodegradable polymer in need of electronic enablement.
The morning had presentations from a diverse range of speakers including Levi, IFRA news and many others covering the vast array of applications of printed electronics from signage to skin patches. This was followed by detailed analysis of the technology by component type.