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The Opportunities for In-Mold Electronics

By David Savastano, Editor | January 25, 2017

Sun Chemical, Eastprint, DuraTech, AlSentis and T+ink team up to develop IME solutions.

In-mold electronics (IME), or structural electronics, offers excellent opportunities for brand owners and designers to utilize the capabilities of flexible and printed electronics in complete packages. A collaborative effort between a number of industry leaders, including Sun Chemical, Eastprint, DuraTech, Alsentis and T+ink, is bringing in-mold electronics to the forefront with a series of product concepts that are drawing interest from end users in segments ranging from consumer goods to automotive and healthcare.

Each of the partners brings their own skills to this collaboration. For example, Sun Chemical, a member of the DIC group, is a global leader in printing inks, and its Advanced Materials Division has made significant inroads in printed electronics’ markets ranging from automotive and electronics to aerospace, printed circuit boards, photovoltaics and plastic cards.
           
Roy Bjorlin, commercial and strategic initiatives director, printed electronics at Sun Chemical, noted that in mold electronics is a strategic initiative at Sun Chemical, and that working with its partners ensures that a complete solution will be available to end users.
           
“We believe IME will transform much of the traditional way electronic devices are manufactured,” Bjorlin said. “Aesthetics, simplified manufacturing, increased performance and new product features, cost and a positive impact to the environment will be significant drivers. At this phase of the project we are focusing attention on identifying and working collaboratively with key elements of the technology and manufacturing chain, including T Ink, Alsentis, Dura Tech and Eastprint. Our goal is to establish a complete solution package to the OEM.”
           
Eastprint Inc. has been manufacturing and designing membrane switches since 1978, and is a global leader in the printed electronics industry. Among Eastprint’s specialties are human machine interfaces (HMI), membrane switches, IML/IMD overlays, projected capacitive switches, screenprinted antennas and electronics, printed heaters and in-mold electronics.
           
“Eastprint has been a value-added membrane switch manufacturer for 40 years,” said Tom Bianchi, VP of Eastprint. “Our expertise begins with functional ink screen printing on PET, our surface mounting of components on PET silver ink circuits has been called by one of our large OEM customers the best in the world for process controls and capacity. These two differentiators in capabilities combine with our wholly owned and operated Eastprint Mexico facility to provide globally competitive prices from North American manufacturing locations.”
           
“We have a few different programs in development,” added Tom Bianchi. “The market applications range from the consumer retail industry to the appliance market.”
           
DuraTech focuses on custom labels, nameplates and graphic overlays, using screen, digital and flexo printing, and brings its own experiences to the in-mold electronics field.
           
“Our first project was a very unique application of the technology for a lens heater,” Peter Johnson, president of DuraTech Industries, said. “When headlights started switching from bulbs that generate heat to LEDs, they had a problem with the headlight lens collecting snow and ice. The solution was to mold conductive ink into the plastic lens. This product has been out in the field for about one year and is performing great.”
           
Rounding out the group is T+ink, a leader in conductive inks for the retail sector, and AlSentis, a disruptive touch technology specialist.
           
“AlSentis provides system design and solution expertise including material and processing integration expertise,” said Justin Teitt, the company’s CEO. “Other partners bring manufacturing disciplines and competencies in molding, printing, and assembly.”
           
Bjorlin said that the unique skills each of the partners brings to the collaboration are playing key roles in the development of the technology.
           
“The key elements of the design and manufacturing of IME requires expertise in various technologies including touch switch, lighting and display. Manufacturing expertise in printing, assembly, forming and molding are also key requisites. Our team members Alsentis, T Ink, Dura Tech and Eastprint all have a passion for IME and represent a great foundation for offering complete solutions in design and manufacturing expertise to our targeted OEMs,” Bjorlin noted.
           
“We all have a great selling network so there is no shortage of direct connections to show customers this new technology,” Johnson added. “We are all passionate about the future of this technology.”
 
Key Advantages of In-Mold Electronics

The ability to create complete solutions for end users is one of the most important drivers of IME technology. Teitt pointed to numerous performance and aesthetic advantages, including more beautiful products and more elegant integration, better product performance in robust environments, manufacturing cost benefits and more environmentally friendly and reduced power consumptions through some IME techniques.

The ability to create stunning designs is another important opportunity for in-mold electronics.

“3D cap touch is a disruptive technology,” Johnson said. “No one is currently designing appliance parts with 3D cap touch. Just think of how a washing machine will stand out on the showroom floor when the backsplash is 3D. We can make buttons, sliders and rotating cap touch sensors. With the Alsentis technology, it also works well with water splashed on it and with gloves. It also delivers a completely sealed assembly with ‘solid state’ switching. No moving parts means the switch will never wear out."

Johnson noted that cost of assembly is also a plus.
           
“Cost is also a big factor as this technology eliminates many of the layers of a conventional switch,” Johnson noted. “You can also make very large parts without having to make a FR4 board that covers the entire part, since we screen print the sensors and traces. There are also assembly cost savings as there are much fewer pieces in the final assemble. Some of the pricing exercises we have done have shown up to a 50% reduction from their current constructions.”
           
“Product performance is improved as a lighter, stronger user interface is utilized and potentially with integrated electronics,” Bianchi noted. “Overall cost of the HMI or user interface is reduced also. It’s like taking a membrane switch on a plastic or metal backer and making it a one piece switch assembly that is lighter, stronger and lower cost while providing the PCAP switch technology most users want these days.”
           
Bjorlin pointed to these aspects, as well as customer satisfaction, as important elements favoring IME.
           
“User interface will be a huge advantage and drive adoption,” Bjorlin said. “The consumer experience in utilizing an increasingly ubiquitous use of Touch Technology, coupled with improved performance and additional new features like IME-Integrated-Touch Technology, will make in-mold electronics very attractive to OEMs. Additionally, cost though simplified manufacturing will bring a dramatic increase in the use of print technology vs. assembly, which will be very beneficial to driving the adoption of IME. Equally as important, IME can offer improvements to the environment though a reduced carbon footprint via energy savings during manufacturing as well as better options for recycling at end of life.”
           
There are challenges that have to be overcome with in-mold electronics. For example, Bjorlin, Bianchi and Johnson believe that adoption of the technology is the greatest challenge facing in-mold electronics.
             
“It is understandable that OEMs, through the prism of in house capability with some processes outsourced, view IME as a complex process,” Bjorlin added. “One of the key objectives of working together with a team is to demonstrate the viability of IME and to deliver a final solution to the OEM. We believe through our global resources and working collaboratively with critical technology and manufacturing experts and by demonstrating via working prototypes, Sun, along with this consortium, can offer a degree of confidence and encourage the adoption of this strategic technology.”
           
“For most customers it is new,” Bianchi noted. “More conservative companies like it but are slow to adopt. Those that embrace it now will be producing lighter, stronger less expensive products sooner than their competitors.”
           
“When you show an engineer the technology they have never seen before, they all think it is amazing, but the challenge is getting them to envision where they can use the technology,” Johnson noted. “The other challenge is that there is not actuation force on the button, but we can acknowledge a touch with LED lights, sound and haptic.”
 
Markets for In-Mold Electronics

In-mold electronics can be utilized in a huge range of markets, beginning with automotive and appliances.
           
“We have had a lot of interest from the appliance and automotive market and the technology fits this market very well,” Johnson said. “The IME technology always draws a crowd of engineers when we present it, but since it is new they don’t always see the application for 3D capacitive touch. After a review of some of their current products with them, it is not very hard to find applications for the technology.”

Bianchi adds medical device and industrial controls to the above opportunities.
           
“Currently the technology is emerging so the markets that have larger volumes,” Bianchi said. “Appliance, medical device, industrial controls and automotive are the leading candidates today, but eventually almost any market whose products can use HMI will benefit from this technology.”
           
“We see human machine interface as a key application and differentiator for IME,” said Justin Teitt, Alsentis’ CEO. “Touch controlled devices, including those with indicators, displays, and other user feedbacks elements, become natural candidates for IME.”     
           
“Certainly there is a wide range of markets where IME will offer advantages,” Bjorlin said. “But it’s likely early adopters will be part of the automotive and appliance space. However, there is a lot of interest already in portable consumer markets. Sensors and displays/indicators and items such as remote controls, instrumentation, medical devices, and other products that require high durability, reliability, and robustness lend themselves as ideal candidates.”
           
With all of these markets examining the possibilities for printed electronics, the potential opportunities for in-mold electronicsareis excellent. Johnson said he is “extremely optimistic” about the future of in-mold electronics.
           
“Automotive is extremely interested in the technology,” Johnson added. “Appliance is the market that I think will launch first. Once you get the first large customer to launch it, the others will follow and the market will grow very quickly.”
           
“We are optimistic that once we demonstrate the viability and advantages that IME offers, early adopters will accelerate the use and drive significant growth,” Bjorlin said.
           
“The next few years will be a tipping point for flexible electronics,” Teitt said. “Equipment and suppliers with expertise that can be tailored to fit IME manufacturing are becoming more and more common.”
           
“In addition to the few we have going today, we expect IME designs to grow next year and eventually become more prevalent than membrane switch designs,” Bianchi said. “Our traditional membrane switch printed electronics market customers will drive the demand once the early adopters of the technology products reach the market.”