Wired up by plastics

The printed electronics sector, which has been projected by BCC Research to build a market value of more than US$12.6 billion in 2016, is reinventing itself with plastics to produce thinner, smaller and eco-friendly devices.

Conventional silicone-based electronics may be a thing of the past with the advent of printed electronics. According to a report by MarketsandMarkets, printed electronics facilitate applications that are otherwise costly or not viable with electronics made from silicones.

The new generation of printed electronics has made a giant leap and has done this by integrating the versatile capabilities of plastics as a substrate. Other thin substrates where electronic devices can be fabricated are paper and even textiles, using electrically functional inks and standard printing processes. Plastics provide light weight, flexibility, and small-sized characteristics for printed electronics. The material also enables for easy and economical manufacturing, the US-based research firm said.

It added that the Asia-Pacific market achieved 42.5% share of the global printed electronics market in 2010 in lieu of its demand for printed displays. The region is forecast to continue to grow at a CAGR of 40.8% through 2015 with more applications such as in printed Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) displays and lighting being developed.

Echoing this growth is also technology research group TechNavio. The UK firm forecasts that the global printed electronics market will grow at a CAGR of 20.6% from 2013 to 2018.

Amidst the rising demand for eco-friendly electronic products, TechNavio said that the lack of technology standards could test the growth of this market.

Limitless applications?

The possibilities for printed electronics are only bound by one’s imagination. The technology enables devices such as OLEDs and Organic Photo Voltaic (OPV) to change the landscape for displays, lighting and energy harvesting applications.

Flexible displays, smart labels, and animated signage are examples of such applications. Therefore, printed electronics has not only enhanced existing markets but is also creating new market opportunities.

Considering its almost limitless potentials, printed electronics is the focus for a space-confetti project hatched by the National Aeronautics Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Lab with the Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) owned by US-based electronics equipment maker Xerox. Early last year, both collaborated on printing heat and light sensors that would suit the environmental sensing on the planet Mars’s surface. The electronics are printed on thin plastic sheets, which would be released on Mars so that data such as heat or light would be detected by the sensors and then communicated wirelessly back to Earth.

Meanwhile, more companies are acknowledging the opportunities in plastics as an electronic material. Venturing into environmentally friendly plastic materials and expanding into the electronic materials business, South Korean materials firm Samyang Group is taking its first step of commercialising a plastic material called isosorbide, a glucose-derived heterocyclic compound. Samyang has been conducting developmental work on isosorbide-based bio-polycarbonate materials since 2011. The materials, it said, exhibit high-strength properties and versatility.

Power in thin electronics

Smartphones and similar devices have revolutionised connectivity in the 21st century. Certain smartphones boast of an extra feature that enhances data exchange and communications.

The near-field communication (NFC) system, as defined by MarketsandMarkets in its report on the sector, is a set of standards for smartphones and similar devices to establish radio communication with each other by touching them together or bringing them into close proximity, usually not more than a few centimetres. Current and future applications include contactless transactions, data exchange, and simplified set-up of more complex communications such as Wi-Fi communication is also possible between an NFC device and an unpowered NFC chip called tag. The market is expected to achieve US$10 billion by 2016, according to the study.

Norwegian printed electronics label firm Thin Film Electronics, which raised an estimated US$24 million to develop the sector further, has developed NFC–readable smart labels. These printed electronic sensor labels will be enhanced with printed silicone products manufacturer Kovio Technology’s NFC capabilities. Thinfilm has acquired Kovio, a privately-held Silicon Valley company with origins in the world renowned MIT Media Lab, including its intellectual property technologies and manufacturing assets in San Jose, California. NFC printed electronic memory and sensor platforms will enable a seamless exchange of information between Thinfilm’s Smart Labels and NFC-enabled phones and tablets, the Oslo-based company said. The Kovio technology is supported commercially by the Google Android operating system.

The EUR2.7 million deal paves the way for Thinfilm to spin Kovio’s Silicon Valley facilities into an NFC Innovation Centre to support its manufacturing of printed electronic labels.

Wisconsin-headquartered Brady Corporation also inked a deal with Thinfilm for an exclusive license to utilise Thinfilm’ s printed electronic timing labels for applications such as visitor and healthcare identification and tracking.

Meanwhile, engineers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and Stanford University have developed the fastest thin-film organic transistors, which they claim could achieve the performance needed for high-resolution television screens and similar electronic devices.

The latest invention, which was funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation, tops the previous organic semi-conductors developed from cheaper carbon-rich molecules and plastics, which were supposed to perform electronic operations at a speed closer to that performed by polycrystalline silicon or polysilicon (also known as poly-Si) materials used in modern high-end electronics. While the term organic used to be confined to compounds produced by living organisms has now been extended to include synthetic substances based on carbons and plastics.

Research teams led by Zhenan Bao, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Stanford, and Jinsong Huang, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at UNL, used the new process to make organic thin-film transistors with electronic characteristics comparable to those found in expensive, curved-screen television displays based on a form of silicon technology.

They achieved the speed boost by altering the basic process for making thin-film organic transistors.

The team said that further improvements to this experimental process could lead to the development of inexpensive, high-performance electronics built on transparent substrates such as glass and, eventually, clear and flexible plastics. Likewise, with this innovation, high-performance organic electronics may soon become nearly see-through, said the researchers.

Image perfect invention

I n the area of flexible image sensors, French organic sensor producer Isorg and UK-headquartered Plastic Logic have a new development. Combining Isorg’s organic photodetectors (OPD) and Plastic Logic’ s organic thin-film transistor (OTFT) backplane, both firms were able to come up with a device that features plastic image sensors with a 4x4 cm active area and 96x96 pixels resolution, which they showcased at the Printed Electronics show last year in the US.

The partners said that the technology is aimed at replacing sensors that are made on fragile glass substrates. Its first target application is for x-ray digital imaging. Plastic sensors will enable the development of lighter, shock-resistant portable equipment, the firms said. The device is still a work-in-progress, according to Isorg and Plastic Logic, which are currently working on reducing the pixel pitch.

New mode for shaping plastics

Other new developments include the no-moulds-required or NMR technology, an innovation used by US plastics fabricating firm Envision Plastics and Design to make plastic electronic enclosures, displays and other plastic parts with no tooling or moulds.

The Minnesota-based company says that NMR can cater to lower volume production requirements such as producing nonimplantable medical diagnostic devices for the medical industry.

Various markets are being served by the NMR technology including telecommunications (for example, table top-mounted plastic control devices); and agriculture (for example, electronic enclosures for growth chambers to house electronics or for plastic mounting brackets) and transportation (for example, electronic enclosures for communication devices).


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