Flexible and Printed Electronics

Flexible and Printed Electronics

By Kevin Cammack, FlexTech Alliance

The microchip has transformed the lives of everyone on this planet in ways that could not have been imagined 50 years ago. Today, a new technological revolution is emerging that could have a similar impact on our lives. Flexible and printed electronics, or FPE, are transforming the way we live and interact, and organizations like the FlexTech Alliance for Displays and Flexible, Printed Electronics (www.flextech.org) are helping to make FPE a reality. Integrated electronics are no longer only just about smaller and faster; today’s important metrics include larger area, ruggedness, weight, power budget, conformability and green/clean manufacturing and products that can be integrated seamlessly into all aspects of life.

 

    “In the future, structural materials will incorporate sensing, reporting, and even healing functions....” National Academy of Sciences, “Materials Science and Technology: Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century”

The market for Flexible and Printed Electronics will grow rapidly in the near future. FPE underpins emerging products in the fastest growing markets in the world— photovoltaics and electronic displays. The global market for all FPE applications today is estimated at just under $1.2B. NanoMarkets® estimates those markets will increase to a $10B market by 2012, and a $300B market is projected by 2025.

The Technology

Flexible and Printed Electronics describes a broad set of technologies applicable across a multitude of products. FPE may be very small, such has cell phone components, or very large (literally thousands of square meters), enabling applications that can only be dreamed of today. The common theme of FPE is that it enables the production of electronic devices that can be readily integrated into all aspects of life in a seamless manner, at low cost, on large scales, using inherently green processes and materials.

 


The elements of FPE— flexible and printed— each describe a different aspect of improvement over traditional silicon electronics.

  • Flexible: Unlike silicon microelectronics, FPE can be bent or shaped without damage. This allows integration into everyday items and places, such as paper or textiles, which are not generally flat and shock protected.
  • Printed – Printing innovations make high volume production of FPE at low cost, using green materials and on flexible substrates possible. Most of the printing methods used today, including offset, gravure, flexo and ink jet can be adapted to FPE.
 

  • FPE are inherently green: In many cases, FPE replaces the materials in traditional electronics, including toxic metals such as germanium, with plastics and inks. These new materials have the advantages of low energy consumption, high fault-tolerance, transparency, light weight and shock resistance.

The common themes among these elements are:

  • materials and manufacturing costs
  • novel applications not practical to manufacture today
  • of U.S. print manufacturing capacity for microelectronics manufacturing.

Market/Product Opportunities

Products made possible by FPE in displays, lighting, sensors and solar are only now beginning to come onto the market today. FlexTech estimates that by 2017, FPE revenues will exceed $5B annually in several industries, including indoor lighting, photovoltaics, integrated displays and smart packaging.

Figure 1 Predicted growth of FPE markets through 2017

Some specific product areas of intense industry interest include:

  • Flexible solar panels: Traditional photovoltaic solar is made from a silicon wafer encased in glass, and are expensive, heavy and easy to break. With the support of the Department of Energy (DOE), pioneering (primarily in the U.S.) entrepreneurs are now inventing lightweight, flexible solar cells.
 

  • Printed solid state lighting: Printed OLEDs are a lighting technology that can be 100% efficient – pure light with no wasted energy creating heat. Low-cost OLED lighting installed as wallpaper and ultra-high contrast, flexible displays are among the applications being developed by companies such as UDC and Philips.
 

  • Medical devices: FPE enables medical innovations that dramatically lower healthcare costs while improving overall quality of care, such as smart, flexible electronic bandages that monitor health, dispense prophylactics, and warn when you need more serious treatment. Newer flexible materials will make implanted artificial eyes and brain-linked artificial limbs possible for the first time.
 

Emerging Opportunities

FPE will also enable capabilities that can only be dreamed of today, such as intelligent clothing, structure-integrated sensors, wearable medical diagnostic tools, and implantable RF devices.

Learn More

Firms and individuals interested in learning more about flexible and printed electronics should consider attending the Flexible Printed Electronics Workshop on August 20, 2008. The workshop is free to attend and hosted by FlexTech and Mark Andy at the Mark Andy headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri. Attendance is limited— interested individuals should RSVP to Kay Mascoli (kay.mascoli@flextech.org) to reserve a spot.