Over the next 15 years, printed electronics is expected to transform the way we think about and use electronic goods such as mobile phones, display screens, lighting and even paper. However, for technology companies wanting to make the transition from their traditional silicon roots, this will mean embracing not only new technology, but the adoption of a more standardised approach and better collaboration according to a number of leading industry experts.
Speaking at the Semiconductor 2K Conference in Cardiff, Dr Harry Zervos, Industry Analyst from IDTechEx says the move towards printed electronics is a natural progression in the search for products and technologies which are 'greener', more efficient and ultimately more cost effective to produce.
"One of the primary advantages of Thin Film Transistor Circuits (TFTCs or plastic electronics) used in products such as 'take anywhere, read anywhere' electronic paper and solid state lighting (LEDs, etc) is that they offer a relatively low cost manufacturing solution for UK technology companies and greater flexibility for both the user and manufacturer when it comes to size, form factor and application architecture.
At the same time we are expecting significant growth in this emerging area of semiconductor manufacturing, especially in inorganic photovoltaic (PV) technologies beyond silicon and display front plane technologies."
The UK technology industry is already at the forefront of this revolution with companies active in all areas of the supply chain from suppliers of basic organic and inorganic chemicals and printing press manufacturers through to producers of flexible displays and sensors according to Dr Ric Allott, Deputy Network Director of the UK Displays and Lighting Knowledge Transfer Network (UKDL KTN).
"This is a very exciting time for the technology and manufacturing industries in Wales and the rest of the UK as we are literally bringing to market electronic goods which have broken the shackles of conventional electronics.
"Just think about the impact Welsh businesses like solar energy provider G24i and AIM-listed LED supplier Enfis are making on the way we as consumers and businesses think about and use lighting and energy in an effort to reduce our impact on the environment. Similarly, we are seeing huge investments by global consumer brands such as LG Display, Sony and Epson and we are expecting some amazing products using these technologies to be brought to market soon."
Printed electronics is already slicing out a bigger share of the market.
In 2005 the global market for printed electronics was approximately $650 million (US dollar). Over the short term this is expected to increase to $3bn by 2009 and $30bn by 2015.
Despite this exponential growth curve, printed electronics enthusiasts such as Drs Allott and Zervos are not expecting plastic electronics to replace silicon electronics in the near future.
Instead, they argue, printed electronics will enable electronics to be used in products which could not exist with current electronic materials and processing.
"Additive printing processes, for example, can be utilised to deposit a sequence of metal and organic layers, which may ultimately result in a laterally patterned array of transistors, a photovoltaic cell, sensor or display," explains Dr Allot.
In Wales, the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating (WCPC) at Swansea University already has the know-how and facilities to print electronic circuits in the same way that paper is printed in a press, a radical departure from traditional methods for manufacturing circuit boards.
Dr Tim Claypole, Centre Director explains: "The WCPC was set up with the intention to offer businesses a way of developing the volume manufacture of products based on micro- and nanotechnology. In order to achieve this the WCPC has equipment dedicated to integrated manufacture by printing and offers a unique facility in the UK and Europe for the realisation of cutting-edge flexible printed electronics, displays, lighting and sensors - allowing, for example, the development of a roll up television or e-newspapers."
In terms of potential for printed electronics, the opportunities are endless according to Dr Zervos.
"Already we have seen the number of players active in this market doubling over the past two years. And as consumers and governments turn on the pressure for more environmentally conscious products, technology businesses will have to prioritise the supply of flexible, low cost devices. Just think about the new photovoltaics (solar cells, etc). Already heavily subsidised, these types of devices are at the cutting edge yet feasible to produce. There will also be a requirement for different types, thus enabling businesses to explore new markets or gain additional market share."
In terms of growth, Dr Zervos expects the market for printed and potentially printed electronics to increase from $1.6bn in 2008 to $47bn by 2018.
"Sixty-four per cent of the market today is made up of mature electronic products. Printed electronics can be can be made from conductive inks for membrane keyboards, Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs), flex connectors, RFID antennas, membrane keyboards, heated clothing, etc. Similarly this technology can be applied to sensors e.g. disposable glucose sensors for those with diabetes and Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) on glass substrates, etc."
"At present the number of UK companies active in the TFTC capacity is a mere 5% with Japan representing 27% and the US 32%. The greatest opportunity, we believe, lies in the manufacture and provision of devices which are flexible and can be printed."
"As such our expectation is that the printable components in the $1.6bn printed and potentially printed electronics market will increase from its current level of 27.8% to 79.6% by 2018. Similarly, in 2008 only 15.7% of the components are on a non rigid substrate (such as sensors and displays & lighting) and we expect this to rise to 74% by 2018."
In order to get to this level, Dr Allott says a lot will depend on the electronics industry's ability to collaborate with related industries such as packaging, medical and pharmaceutical.
"The success of the plastics electronics industry will depend on its ability to tap into and combine different types of technologies. At present no single company is in a position to achieve this level of growth and innovation on their own, so we would certainly encourage businesses wanting to explore this technology to collaborate."
"We also see the need for standards within the industry, but this will have to be adopted on an application by application basis. The UKDL already has an active plastics electronics community where businesses can exchange ideas, address issues and speak in a unified voice when it comes to Government legislation and procurement without fear of IP infringement or loss of confidentiality."
The Plastics Electronics Workshop took place during the Semiconductor 2K Conference in Cardiff. The event was organised by the UK-wide Joint Equipment and Materials Initiative (JEMI) with support from the Welsh Electronics Forum and Welsh Assembly Government.
by Marianna Marks
For more on photovoltaics attend Photovoltaics Beyond Conventional Silicon.