Opportunities for Suppliers in PE: Hybrid Solutions Integrate Printed Components with Conventional Electronics and Processes

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IDTechEx Printed Electronics USA: Emerging Technology Update

Opportunities for Suppliers in PE: Hybrid Solutions Integrate Printed Components with Conventional Electronics and Processes

By Paula Doe, SEMI Emerging and Adjacent Markets

Progress on some of the issues holding back the market for disruptive solution-processed or printed or flexible electronics may at last be creating real opportunities for suppliers. This is especially true for suppliers with hybrid solutions that integrate printed components with conventional electronics into practical systems or that combine the new solution processes with more traditional semiconductor deposition or thermal processes for better performance.

OLED displays and lighting will be the largest opportunity for printed/flexible electronics going forward, a total $19 billion market in 2020, the majority of which will be printed or flexible within the next 10 years, forecasts IDTechEx. LCD companies see OLEDs as the future, said CEO Raghu Das, and now are talking about OLED TV for 2013, driven in part by the faster switching technology’s advantage over LCDs for 3D TV, initially using vacuum technology but possibly followed by lower-cost, partially printed versions as early as 2014.

Printed electronics on roll. Source: PolyIC

LG Display aims to replace capital intensive LCD manufacturing with solution-based or printing processes, reported Chul-Ho Kim, of the new process department in the LG R&D Center. It’s using reverse offset printing on G5 substrates for printing color filters and black matrixes, with < 0.5 µm variation in alignment accuracy and <3 percent variation in coating uniformity. Current results for roll printing the TFT array are doing 4µm lines of silver nanoparticle ink with +/- 2.0µm alignment accuracy on G5 substrates, improved from 8µm and +/-4.5 µm a year ago. It’s also working on developing an imprint process with UV curing, targeting alignment of <1.0µm, so far used for passivation and column spacers in commercial products.

Slow Process from Materials Development to Electronic Systems

For now, however, the printed electronics market is almost entirely inks and non-OLED displays. Actual revenues from partially printed or flexible electronics remained a mere $680 million in 2010, reports IDTechEx, $400 million of that from inks, $160 million from e-paper and inorganic electroluminescent displays, and $120 million from sensors like glucose test strips. E-readers have created demand for robust, low-power displays like E-Ink frontplanes, while more advertisers are using inorganic electroluminescent displays for large-area signage. Despite the investment of more than $10 billion over the last 20 years by some 700 organizations worldwide, companies that developed the innovative materials for semiconductive inks and polymers found they also then had to spend much time and capital to develop appropriate equipment, custom design and modeling software, and even end- product systems and distribution. After all that, the end products often turned out to have trouble competing with fast-improving existing technologies.

But all the attention has created user demand for printed electronics solutions, creating an opportunity for companies with hybrid solutions that can integrate the existing printed components into practical commercial systems with conventional electronics, or that can apply more electronics-type technology in hybrid production processes that improve the performance of printed materials. “The opportunity is for plug-and-play replacements for existing products that offer the same or better performance at lower cost,” argues venture capitalist Alexei Andreev, EVP and managing director, Harris & Harris Group. “And no one knows what the right business model is yet, so there’s a chance for the winner to take all.”

Opportunities for Equipment Makers to Improve Performance

Most producers to date have aimed to use conventional printing and coating equipment. One of the leading contract manufacturers GSI, for example, was a graphics printing company that now gets 85 percent of its $30 million in annual revenues from printed electronics, and has seen 30 percent growth the last two years. It uses largely conventional graphic printing equipment, with drying ovens, to make things like diabetes glucose test strips, electrochromic and electroluminescent displays and smart cards with display insets, microfluidic devices, battery testers, and soon drug delivery patches and heating elements. Early industry leaders with innovative materials like Kovio and PolyIC also focused on tweaking graphics printing technology to make relatively simple electronics like RFID item tags and transit or event tickets. But companies targeting more demanding thin-film solar cells or display backplanes with solution-based deposition or flexible substrates have typically had to design their own equipment as well as the process.

But now equipment suppliers see opportunity to improve performance of problematic printed films with commercial tools using vacuum, lift-off, or rapid thermal processes more familiar to the electronics industry, which is likely to help improve volume production technology and bring down costs. NovaCentrix (Austin, TX) has been marketing rapid thermal processing roll-to-roll tools for a couple of years now for heat treating low cost inks and low temperature plastic and paper substrates to improve performance, using intense pulsed light on a roll to roll system.

New Way Air Bearings Inc. (Aston, PA) is in alpha testing at NovaCentrix with a small, low-cost pass-through vacuum chamber that could allow practical vacuum processing on a continuous R2R process. It distributes air pressure through millions of sub-micron-sized holes across the bearing surface, forcing two halves of the chamber housing apart by 20 microns so the film can pass through, while a series of differentially-pumped grooves isolate a vacuum region.

Aixtron AG (Herzogenrath, Germany) is offering vapor phase deposition of organic and polymer films at low vacuum, which it argues allows better control of film composition and quality. The process uses short flash evaporation to limit thermal stress, and a carrier gas to control delivery of materials from multiple chambers through a close-coupled showerhead to the substrate with precise mixing and dosing, on R2R or G3.5 LCD formats.

In quite a different approach, startup Semprius (Durham, NC) is using its transfer printing tool to lift conventional semiconductor die off the wafer and redistribute them simply and cheaply on other substrates, like flexible ones. Though the company is now focusing on liftoff and printing of ultra-thin films of multijunction compound semiconductor solar cells, it’s also been working on transferring die from silicon wafers to flexible OLED backplanes.

Applied Materials Ventures has been actively making strategic investments in companies in printed electronics where its chief sector technologist sees good potential applications for its vacuum deposition equipment business, including Tera-Barrier Films (Singapore), whose barrier film’s reported verified water vapor transmission rate of 10-6 g/m2/day would apparently be good enough for OLEDs. Instead of the usual approach of designing the barrier stack by alternating organic and inorganic layers to stagger the pores to make it difficult for water and oxygen molecules to pass through, Tera-Barrier plugs the cracks and pinhole defects with nanoparticles. Its barrier stack uses two barrier oxide layers, each sealed with nanoparticle sealing layers that also retain moisture. Presumably Applied is helping the company with tools to help it scale small-area research results to production of uniform films over larger areas.

Still Plenty of Opportunities in Materials

Recent progress has been made in most of the key materials, including copper inks, carbon nanomaterials, conductive polymers, ITO alternatives and the ever-problematic barrier films, but there’s still plenty of opportunity for improvement, particularly for hybrid production schemes that allow higher performance devices. Among the most interesting recent developments are printable graphene ink reportedly now launching in a consumer product, and printed capacitive patterns readable by the capacitive touch screen in smart phone. Perhaps more significant long-term are the more hybrid solutions bringing either higher performance to printed electronics, or lower-cost printed solutions to more standard electronics, like electrowetting layers to replace liquid crystals in LCD lines, photo resist for fine patterning of polymers with lithography tools, and printing technologies for through-silicon vias.

Vorbeck Materials (Jessup, MD) president John Lettow reports a customer is currently launching a product with circuits of its printed graphene, still more resistance than silver but lower in cost. It makes the graphene powder by chemical separation from graphite, and then mixes it into an ink with surfactants that so it dries with platelets reasonably aligned into thin layers, using technology from Princeton University. Applications include security (codes printed in what looks like a black box on the label), smart cards, consumer and medical products, and supporting components but not transistors. Lettow says the company expects to be profitable in 2011.

Printechnologics (formerly Menippos) (Chemnitz, Germany) looks to bring more competition to the RFID world with its printed capacitive patterns readable by the touch of a capacitive touch phone screen. The company prints the ID information on the package at one end of the product’s existing printing line, reportedly at 100 percent yield for under a penny each. It was showing Hewlett-Packard printer ink cartridge packages with the technology, where a swipe of the phone sent the customer to a web site that showed which cartridges went with which printer models.

Orthogonal, out of Cornell University, has a photoresist system based on fluorine chemistry that it says does not interact with organic materials, making it possible to use conventional lithography tools to make fine patterns on fragile organic materials as well as metals, allowing much higher resolution and registration than solution printing, with etching and liftoff processes. The company suggests that allows replacing ITO with a patterned conducting polymer like PEDOT:PSS for significantly lower cost. It’s also working with Haeraus and Kodak on spin coating resist on flexible substrates.

Optomec (Saint Paul, MN) now sees its aerosol jet printing process moving from typical printed electronics applications into the mainstream electronics world, as an alternative to wire bonding and 3D interconnect. Its non- contact, room temperature process gets down to _10µm feature sizes with its dense mists of nanoparticle inks. The company says its now working with leading smart phone players for multichip processor/memory packages, arguing that using vertical interconnect pillars from Vertical Circuits, Inc. and jetting on interconnect can make 3D conformal interconnects for stacked die with higher frequency and better reliability than wire bonding, and lower cost and faster time-to-market than TSV.

Positive Signs: Technology is Ready; Need to Integrate Components into Systems

Printed electronics has suffered from the problem of the development of separate components in isolation, of printed displays but no drivers that work with them, or batteries but no power management for systems to use them. But demand from users for real products has more companies working together to start to integrates product, printing batteries and displays on the same substrate, for example.

One of the most enthusiastic product developers is the U.S. Army, whose ARDEC electronics development lab is putting such systems together. “Printed electronics technology is good enough now for 90 percent of the applications we want,” said James Zunino, ARDEC project officer and materials engineer, noting that the best printed electronics today are roughly equivalent to early 1970s CMOS capability, with electron mobility of 80cm2/V-s electron mobility and switching frequency of 950 MHz.

The military is using the technology for sensors to detect explosive devices, and gather the results of weapon tests. It’s putting flexible sensors in helicopter skin to feed the pilot real-time information on where the craft is hit and how badly. Explosive or energetic inks allow small, flexible detonators, meaning more room for more intelligence and more firepower within the weapon. Sensors attached to ammunition boxes track storage and shipping conditions so users can tell if the equipment will work before having to rely on it in the field, and if one round fails won’t have to condemn the whole lot. A printed antenna on the helmet replaces the old wire antenna sticking up from the soldier’s back pack, and makes him less of a target.

For the rest of the world, major printed electronics research organization PARC and the major printed electronics contractor Sologie are starting to work together more closely on product development for manufacturing. “Customers have no one place to go to get what they want,” said John Knights, PARC senior director of business development, noting the need for customer input on development, design to work with manufacturing, production processes to evolve with materials development. The companies are developing a commercial temperature sensor together to customer specs to work out the process, targeting sampling product in 2011.

Customers are Eager for Products

Marketers and their advertising and packaging companies are eager for printed digital displays and attention-attracting packaging, which could be a huge business eventually, though so far customer wish lists seem far beyond what printed technology can currently deliver. “We desperately need printed electronics products for displays,” said Eric Penot, digital media director at JCDecaux, which does a $2 billion annual business in advertising in public spaces and mass transit systems. The company is eager for giant low energy, high contrast, flexible digital screens to replace LCDs, but they have to last outdoors for 10 years and cost less than $100/ft2.

Boeing already uses printed electronics for the bird detector sensor on its 747s. It also sees big potential for light, integrated printed wiring to replace the huge volume of heavy cable bundles that fill the floor of the plane, or lightweight flexible displays for seatback entertainment systems, as every 1% reduction in weight leads to a billion dollar opportunity in cost savings. It seeks sensors to monitor structural stress and condition and tags to authenticate Boeing parts to stop the multibillion dollar market in counterfeit replacement parts. But reliability demands are extreme – components have to survive 20 years in extremely harsh conditions, including everything from regular lightening strikes to soaking in hydraulic fluid that dissolves screwdriver handles.

Exhibiting Opportunities Available for Flexible Electronics

Companies with innovative technologies and solutions for flexible and printed electronics manufacturing are invited to exhibit at SEMICON West within the Extreme Electronics zone. Close proximity to the presentation stage plus focused attendee marketing ensures high visibility with visitors focused on and interested in flexible electronics technologies. Great opportunities are still available – learn moreabout exhibiting at SEMICON West and Extreme Electronics!

Join the Extreme Printed and Flexible Community

Working with our partner SemiNeedle, we are proud to present the Extreme Printed Online Community. This site serves as a resource for information about printed and flexible electronics manufacturing, and as a forum for discussions about printed and flexible electronics. Come learn more about printed and flexible electronics and join the community today!

January 6, 2011