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Flexible and Printed Electronics in 2016: The Year in Review

By David Savastano, Editor | December 21, 2016

With the interest in hybrid production, new opportunities and markets are emerging.

The flexible and printed electronics market continues to expand, as new opportunities are appearing in markets ranging from wearables and sensors to RFID, displays and lighting. Whether it is antennas being printed on the backs of cell phones and displays for consumer appliances to smart packaging, and sensors for the Internet of Things, it appears that flexible and printed electronics are poised to appear in more products.

“The interest is increasingly high in adding electronics to everyday items including the wearables space, smart packaging and smart labels,” said Roy Bjorlin, commercial and strategic initiatives director, printed electronics at Sun Chemical. “This is creating demand to develop materials that can require flexibility and can also be processed in high speed.”

Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx, a leading consultancy in the field, says that commercialization is indeed on the rise.
“What’s been really exciting is that a lot of things are coming to commercialization,” Das added. “We’ve seen a lot of simpler things that offer benefits.”

One area of interest is the OLED market. For years, OLEDs have been a leading technology for cell phone displays as well as in some accent lighting, but now, OLEDs are appearing in car tail lights as OSRAM has made significant inroads in OLEDs for the automotive market, with its OLEDs now appearing on the BMW M4 GTS and Audi TT RS.

 “This year was a tipping point as we reached the mass market,” said Dr. Arne Fleißner, senior engineer, OSRAM OLED GmbH.  “We believe that the automotive market will be the first mass market.”

In a major manufacturing move, Thin Film Electronics announced plans to lease a new manufacturing facility in Silicon Valley, which will be home to Thinfilm’s new high-volume roll-to-roll manufacturing line. The new line will ultimately increase Thinfilm’s production capacity to five billion NFC OpenSense and NFC SpeedTap tags per year – which the compnay estmates at $680 million in annual revenue.

One huge key to success is the development of hybrid electronics, led by the NextFlex consortium. Initial projections for flexible and printed electronics sales were set at unrealistic levels, and printed electronics faced a serious challenge when it tried to replace incumbent silicon technology. The emergence of hybrid electronics, combining the best of organic- and silicon-based materials, is leading to new opportunities, and even to stretchable electronics.

Dan Gamota, VP of the Hardware Innovation Group at Jabil Circuits, said that unlimited product form factor freedom and the ability to deform (bend, twist, and stretch) the product are key differentiators for flexible hybrid electronics (FHE).

“Electronics had historically been rigid and put into a rigid housing, but many advanced flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) systems can take infinite shapes by being deformed (twisting and stretching) and ultimately taking the shape of the housing, “ Gamota said. “These FHE systems can conform to the human body or onto 3D structures while providing ancillary functionality, which is a major benefit.”
 
Mergers and Acquisitions
Mergers and acquisitions were on the rise in the flexible and printed electronics industry during 2016, as international corporations saw opportunities to add to their technological offerings.

Two acquisitions in particular were noteworthy on the component side, as CCL Industries acquired Checkpoint Systems and Emerson purchased PakSense.
 
CCL Industries is arguably the largest label printer in the world. Its sales in 2015 topped $3 billion, and after the first three quarters of 2016, CCL was already at more than $2.9 billion. The addition of Checkpoint Systems, a major manufacturer of RFID tags and inlays, in March had a lot to do with that increase. In 2015, Checkpoint had revenue of $820 million and adjusted EBITDA of $83 million. The addition puts CCL in an excellent position to branch out into RFID and smart labels.

“We are very pleased to welcome their deeply experienced people to CCL where they will continue to focus on this important industry for emerging ‘smart label’ technologies,” Geoffrey T. Martin, president and CEO of CCL, said in announcing the move.         

With sales of $20.2 billion in 2016, Emerson is a worldwide technology and engineering company. One area of specialization is cold chain management, as Emerson has a strong position in shipping. Adding PakSense, whose state-of-the-art temperature sensors have gained significant interest in recent years, is an ideal fit.

“This is a strong growth market for Emerson,” said Bob Sharp, EVP and commercial and residential solutions business leader, Emerson, after the acquisitions. “Providing this more expansive solution that covers the whole fresh food process from grower to retailer is another example of how we are focusing the company to be stronger, faster and more nimble for our customers.”

STMicroelectronics, a semiconductor and sensor specialist, acquired ams’ assets related to NFC and RFID readers. “Security and NFC connectivity are key prerequisites for the broad rollout of mobile and IoT devices anticipated in the coming years. This acquisition builds on our deep expertise in secure microcontrollers and gives ST all of the building blocks to create the next generation of highly-integrated secure NFC solutions for mobile and for a broad range of Internet of Things devices,” said Claude Dardanne, EVP and GM of STMicroelectronics’ Microcontroller and Digital ICs Group.

On a funding note, Avery Dennison, another major player in the label field as well as RFID, invested in PragmatIC, a specialist in intelligent packaging. PragmatIC’s flexible integrated circuits could be an ideal fit for Avery Dennison’s inlays.

On the materials side, there were a few moves of note. Sun Chemical and its parent company, DIC, among the industry leaders in the conductive ink market, added Gwent Electronic Materials Ltd., a manufacturer of conductive inks, pastes and powders for biosensors, sensors, circuit boards and other electronic components.

 “Sun Chemical has experienced tremendous growth in the global printed electronics market and this acquisition will help us expand into this strategic market and enable us to better serve our customers,” Mehran Yazdani, president of Sun Chemical Advanced Materials, said in a statement after the acquisition was announced.

Displays are a major opportunity for flexible and printed electronics. The challenge is determining which technology will ultimately become dominant. Samsung is betting on quantum dots (QD), and acquired QD Vision, a QD materials company. QD Vision has reported that it has sold more than one million Color IQ optics in the last three years.