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The Growth of the Printed Sensor Market

By David Savastano, Editor | December 14, 2016

Smart packaging, consumer goods, retail and factory automation are important markets for sensors.

The ability to track data and provide consumers with added information and the ability to interact with brand owners are among the benefits that sensors are providing. As a result of the potential for the Internet of Things, where billions of sensors may ultimately be needed, companies are developing printed sensors. These sensors will be able to be mass produced at a price where consumers will not feel the impact.
 
PragmatIC CEO Scott Whitesaid that one of the major target application areas is smart packaging, in which the packaging incorporates electronic intelligence to communicate with the supply chain or the end consumer - either directly via on-pack displays, or indirectly via wireless protocols (e.g. RFID and NFC).
 
“Even in its simplest form, this provides significant added value, for example by allow unique identification of an individual package, to automate inventory management or to link promotions to specific products,” White observed.
 
“However, the addition of sensors into the packaging allow a much wider range of useful functionality - allowing the package to understand certain parameters about its environment at any given point in time,” White added. “This allows supply chain controls to be extended to monitor temperature, moisture, or other variables that might affect product quality. And it allows rich interaction with the consumer at both the point of purchase and point of use.”
 
Anurag Goel, CTO and VP of software development at Altierre, reported that with nanotechnology finally coming on line, newer types of sensors are becoming possible that have very low profiles, can be produced cheaply, and require very little power.
 
“This presents the challenges of interfacing with ultra-low-power RF communication devices for remote sensing and data collection,” Goel added. “Once these two critical components are put in place, applications requiring high-density distributed sensing become possible whether in consumer markets, factory automation, remote equipment and environmental monitoring, and PAN-based applications.”
 
Keith McMillen, founder and president of BeBop Sensors, said that printing sensors is cheap, fast, and versatile, allowing designers to mass produce thin, flexible sensors.
 
“Most off the shelf sensors, however, lose sensitivity when bent,” McMillen added. “BeBop’s sensors measure force, bend, twist and stretch over any size and geometry. They conform to complex geometries while maintaining a large dynamic range. BeBop leverages this technology across many different industries to make things knowable. With BeBop’s pressure sensitive fabric, data can be gathered from sitting position in car seats, the grip on a baseball bat, or the bend of a finger in a data glove.”
 
Kirk Hutton, sales and marketing for Tangio Printed Electronics, a division of Sytek Enterprises Inc., said that the demand from designers and engineers for improved human-machine UI and UX is making printed force sensors more relevant than ever before in multiple markets and applications.
 
“Either stand-alone or combined with other sensor technologies, force sensing allows new and improved ways to interface with everyday products, enhancing simplicity, control, speed, even safety, while simultaneously addressing the technical shortcomings of other sensing solutions,” Hutton noted. “Tangio has the unique capability to combine printed force and digital sensors with a finished graphics layer, illumination and even haptics, from simple single-point sensors to full 3D Multi Touch environments.”
 
 
Key Markets for Printed Sensors
 
Industry executives report that markets for printed sensors are numerous. White said that smart packaging in one opportunity that is expanding.
 
“The use of sensors is relevant for smart packaging across multiple market sectors, including food/drink, home care, personal care, pharmaceutical, and medical,” White said. “Similar functionality also enables new applications in non-packaging sectors such as gaming (e.g. board games), security (e.g. anti-tamper), apparel (e.g. health monitoring), etc.”
 
Hutton pointed to consumer goods and other segments as ideal matches for printed sensors.
 
“In addition to our established markets, Tangio is addressing opportunities in several key markets including consumer products, home automation and white goods, computing, power tools, IoT, medical and even automotive,” said. “We are selling our products commercially.”
 
For Altiere, retail and factory automation are notable areas of success.
 
“Altierre specializes in designing and building ultra low-power RF clients that can be interfaced via a variety of standardized interfaces with all type of sensor devices – whether they are built on regular PCB substrates, flexible substrates or printed,” Goel said. “Key markets for Altierre are retail (supermarkets, department stores); factory automation applications requiring high sensor densities that can exist in high RF noise environments; and enterprise applications requiring sensing and/or dynamic information display.”
 
McMillen said that BeBop Sensors is developing products in numerous markets.
 
“BeBop has NDAs with dozens of Fortune 500 companies across many verticals, including automotive, sports and fitness, health and wellness, gaming, and office furniture,” said McMillen. “All of BeBop’s contracts are currently in the prototype phase, but we expect to see products launching in 2017.”
 
Overall, companies anticipate that the printed sensor market will continue to grow in the coming years.
 
“We see clear opportunity for sustained growth coupled with consolidation in the market players,” Hutton said. “The winners in this market will be companies who can offer both a high quality and cost effective range of standard sensor products, coupled with continuous innovation and integration in the custom solutions space.”
 
“Altierre is already a leader with its solutions in the retail sector and is now making forays in the factory automation sector,” Goel said. “Being a fully vertically integrated company, Altierre is very quickly able to react to new requirements, build new specialized chips and the RF client system that then works on its existing RF network, as well as build the backend and user applications. We foresee that our sensor market should double year over year into the foreseeable future.”
 
McMillen said that the frictions of rapid and custom printing will continue to fall away, allowing manufacturers to expand their capabilities to satisfy customers of many different types.
 
“The printed sensor market will not just be limited to large scale manufacturers or hobbyists,” added McMillen. “Faster turns, more complex geometries, with reasonable pricing opens up a whole new selling channel that comprises a huge percentage of the center of the bell curve.”
 
“We are obviously not market analysts, but just based on direct customer discussions, we see the potential for growth to at least 10 billion products per annum incorporating some form of printed sensors, and potentially more than 10 times this level,” White concluded.
 

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