Printing electronics - prepare
for a step change
Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx, explores the technology and new opportunities as the printing and electronics industry converge
Without question silicon chips have had a massive impact on our lives since their invention almost 60 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 electronic circuits and 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 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.
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 nonorganic 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 heavyweights such as Samsung, Hewlett Packard, 3M, Sharp and IBM to spinouts and VC funded developers such as Thin Film Electronics, Plastic Logic and PolyIC.
The size of the industry is impressive - IDTechEx forecast a $300 billion 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.
Some aspects of the technology will take longer to realise 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.
These offer brightness and viewing angle benefits over LCDs.
Samsung has developed 40 inch OLED TV displays which will be available for sale from 2007.
Not all these are printed today, but that is the end game towards which developers are working.
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 has launched games and toys incorporating printed electronics to make them more interactive, as has McDonald's with interactive placemats in Australia.
Now companies such as Plastic Logic are commercialising 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.
One challenge is matching the current performance of these devices to suitable markets.
In most cases, printed electronics create new markets rather than replace existing electronics.
Massive needs exist in healthcare, consumer goods and advertising.
To guide engineers through the technologies and their application, IDTechEx will bring it all together at the annual Printed Electronics conference in Cambridge, UK on 20th and 21st April 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; and investing in printed/organic electronics.
There will also be an exclusive tour to two of the leading companies working on this technology - Plastic Logic and The Technology Partnership (TTP).
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