LOPE-C Shows Gains Being Made by Printed Electronics

Sean Milmo

Printed electronics is starting to move out of the lab to the fab.

But some participants at LOPE-C convention at Frankfurt, Germany, which is now claiming to be the world’s largest conference on printed electronics, were complaining that the rate of transition to the marketplace is not fast enough.

Nonetheless, analysts and forecasters speaking at the conference, organized by the Frankfurt-based Organic Electronics Association (OE-A), were predicting that there would soon be significant advances in sales in segments like lighting, flexible displays such as e-readers and organic photovoltaics (OPV).

In the fledgling market for flexible e-readers, Plastic Logic is scheduled to introduce its first product to the market early nextyear, although Polymer Vision, another European startup and a competitor, has had to postpone thelaunch of its rollable reader because of financial difficulties.

Plastic Logic’s e-reader, whose key back plane technologywas developed in Cambridge, England,is being manufactured at Dresden, Germany, in what is thought to be the world’s first purpose-built printed electronics factory.

Over the next few years a range of other advances in the printed electronics sector are expected to provide a platform for an accelerated expansion over the next decade, with some segments likely to record annual growth rates of 30 to 50 percent, the meeting was told.

The underlying optimism in the market was reflected in a total of more than 1,000 participants and 50 exhibitors at the event. There were more than 120 presentations at the meeting, which has the full title of Large-area, Organic & Printed Electronics Convention.

However some speakers were worried about the lack of progress in tackling issues likecosts, poorly performing materials, inefficiencies in production processes and above all an absence of big selling products on the market.

Costs have been difficult to reduce when products like RFID and thin film transistors are still being only partly printed or not at all.

“Undoubtedly there is huge potential in printed electronics,” said Robert Weiss, head of technology and business development at manroland AG, the German press equipment manufacturer.

“But growth will be much more restrained than expected,” he added. “We have major challenges in materials and process development, which will cause a delay. We are behind the schedule forecast a few years ago. We need early applications of technology and we need an early commercial success story. This missing success is starting to generate a loss of momentum on the printers’ side.”

Andre Moreira, manager of the venture capital arm of BASF, said that despite being an investor in Plastic Logic and other printed electronics start-ups, his company has “mixed feelings” about the sector.

“Maybe the biggest challenge it faces is to find individual applications which are beyond those of classical silicon-based electronics,” he told the conference. “The big success story which it requires needs to come soon because the technologies in printed electronics have been around for a while now. The amount of time the sector is taking to develop is putting off some venture capital people because they think it is too long.”

Andrew Hannah, president and chief executive of Plextronics Inc, which specializes in OPV and OLED lighting, said a survey of companies in its supply chain showed that the main concern is costs.

“The biggest hurdle to the commercialization of OLEDs was clearly the costs of manufacturing,” he said. “There is a lot of collaboration around process technologies where we are seeing the highest costs in terms of building devices.”

Wolfgang Mildner, chairman of OE-A, now with 120 members in Europe, North America and Asia, said that in its latest roadmap for the sector the organization envisaged that mass markets for printed electronics would be achieved in the near future. But these advances would depend on progress in materials, equipment, processes and device design.

In 2012-17, large volume segments like OPV would move into off-grid power generation and integration into building structures. Flexible displays would have high resolution color e-readers and e-posters and OLED and electroluminescent lighting would provide light tiles and technical and architectural lighting.

In the same period RFID would be expanding further into logistics and into automation, but item-level tagging and identification would not occur until after 2018. Flexible batteries would be directly integrated into packages only in the long term. However, in smart textiles, displays and photovoltaics would be integrated into clothing after four years.

“Major breakthroughs are absolutely necessary,” said Mr. Mildner, who is managing director of PolyIC GmbH, a German producer of printed RFID, “In process and equipment higher resolution, registration and process stability of patterning processes is needed. For mass production of complex devices resolutions better than 10 microns is necessary.”

“There needs to be a higher performance of semiconductor and conductive materials,” he added, with mobility above 1 square centimetre per volt seconds (1 cm2/Vs) for solution processable semiconductors.

Within circuit design, transistors needed to be similar in standard to the conventional complementary metal oxide semiconductors (CMOS). New strategies had to be created for in-line quality control, he said.

Peter Harrop, chairman of IDTechEx, a UK-based consultancy in printed electronics, told the conference that this year’s global market for printed and potentially printed electronic products would be worth $1.9 billion. By 2019 it would have risen 30 times to $57 billion.

The current marketincludesconductive inks for products like printed circuit boards, RFID and membrane keyboards, nearly all of which are inorganic. It also consists of sensors, OLEDs on glass substrates, electroluminescent displays and printed flexible LCDs.

At the moment around 2,250 organizations are involved in the development of printed electronics, a rise of 50 percent over two years.

“Don’t believe people when they say that the prospects for this market are just a dream,” he said. “This industry is on the move. It is going to provide dramatically new products which were not possible before.”

The printed electronics sector would be able to make a major contribution in three areas. It would help the one in three people who have difficulty reading instructions on products. It would assist consumer goods companies in stopping their brands becoming commoditised. It would help to tackle the demographic time bomb coming from the rise in the elderly population through innovations in self-diagnosis and in medical treatments through printed electronics.

At present only 35 percent of products in the printed electronics market are predominantly printed, while only 18 percent are flexible, Mr. Harrop said. By 2019, 76 percent would be printed and 73 percent flexible.

Lighting, particularly by OLEDs, was seen by some speakers at the conference as offering the one of the biggest prospects in the printed electronics market, at least in the medium to long term.

“The OLED lighting market will start to pick up around 2011 and then reach $1.5 billion by 2015 and $6.2 billion by 2018, “ said Jennifer Colegrove, director for display technologies atDisplaySearch, the Texas-based market research specialist in flat panel displays.

The drivers behind OLED lighting are its energy efficiency, thinness and light weight, long life time, tunable colour, fast switch-on, wide operation temperatures and window-like transparent light, she said.

Bernhard Stapp, vice president and general manager of Osram Semiconductors GmbH, said that the great potential of OLED lighting was its capability to enhance the design of interiors and buildings. OLED light panels of different shapes and sizes could be fitted virtually anywhere.

“For us it is important to transform this technology into applications which make sense by being part of the architectural structure,” he explained. “We will team up with other people to add design concepts to the technology which we will then commercialize.”

The aircraft industry is particularly attracted to the idea of using OLED lighting to enable airlines to create a brand image through the design of the plane interiors.

“Cabins of aircraft are like business cards for airlines because of the opportunities they provide for differentiation in a highly competitive environment,” said Ingo Wuggetzer, vice president cabin innovation and design at Airbus Deutschland.

“OLEDs have the potential to provide flexible surface lighting for ceiling and side walls,” he continued. “Organic electronics can also provide circadian lighting, light tiles, reading lights, sign-back lighting, as well as advertising, natural light emitters and mood lighting.”

The airlines are also interested in the use of OLED displays for providing in-flight information and interactive touch-screen devices.

DisplaySearch reckons that last year total shipments of OLED displays reached 75 million units, worth $615 million with the top 10 suppliers all using small-molecule material.

By 2015 OLED revenue will grow to $5.5 billion, equivalent to an annual growth rate of 37 percent, according to Ms. Colegrove. TV will be the largest application with sales of $1.92 billion, but only marginally ahead of mobile phone displays with revenue of $1.9 billion.

DisplaySearch predicts that flexible display sales will soar to $8.2 billion by 2018 from $85 million in 2008, achieving a compound annual growth rate of 58 percent.

Currently there are 10 different display technologies for flexible displays with around 200 companies working in the area. But by 2018, nearly 80 percent of the revenue in the flexible display sector will come from electrophoretic technologies such as e-books, said Ms. Colegrove.

“There are so many different applications in printed electronics—flexible batteries, paper-like products, disposable diagnostics, intelligent packaging, large area electronics—but the big breakthrough will be e-books,” said Martin Schoeppler, chief executive and president of Fujifilm Dimatix. “E-books will be a very visible printed electronics product and they will give the market a big uplift.”

Major breakthroughs were also considered to be needed in materials, in which some conductive polymers like the thiophene-based P3HT are already seen as being mature products.

“In organic photovoltaics there are huge amounts of improvements which can be made and the most important part of this is gaining advances in materials,” said Christoph Brabec, chief technology officer at Konarka Technology GmbH. “We need
alternatives to the thiophenes which are now quite well understood. If we are to gain the energy efficiencies we need in OPVs new materials are required. We don’t want 100 of them. We want one or at least just a few so that the whole research community can concentrate its efforts on optimizing them.”

Michael Heckmeier, research director for printed electronics at Merck Chemicals Ltd, Southampton, England, where Merck KGaAof Germany has its R&D bases in organic electronic materials, said that although his company’s main focus is on materials and printable formulations it is increasingly becoming involved in the co-development areas of printing processes and component and device manufacture.

“The proportion of exhibitors and presenters at this conference who are material makers has decreased to 13 percent from 32 percent at LOPE-C 2006,” he pointed out. “Perhaps this is because people are working more on processes to reduce costs.”

Merck is also co-operating closely with the LCD display manufacturers in Asia on materials and processes for OLED displays. The company is already a global market leader in the supply of liquid crystals for LCDs.

“We are collaborating with the LCD manufacturers because one view is that the LCD fabs will be used for making OLED displays in order to reduce investment costs,” said Mr. Heckmeier.

Karsten Dierksen, head of functional films electronics at Bayer MaterialScience, said his company is following a strategy of bundling competences in films and surfaces, functional materials, coating and inks and in printing and deposition processes.

“We talk a lot about substrates and other individual materials,” he said. “But we do not talk a lot about their integration, which is the key to the success of printed electronics. We are not there yet with integration. We still have a lot of home work to do in meeting customers specifications.”