Research Institutions in Flexible and Printed Electronics

By David Savastano, Editor | November 14, 2016

Researchers are developing new capabilities, which are leading to new applications.

In emerging high-technology industries, research institutions often play an important role in coming up new developments. Researchers worldwide are coming up with new approaches for flexible and printed electronics.

Dr. Giovanni Nisato, senior manager, business and technology development for CSEM, noted that printing has been a part of the electronics industry for a long time, but fully printed electronics have not become mainstream yet.

“In the past five years, a number of different things happened in printed electronics and organic electronics,” Dr. Nisato said. “People came to terms with a lot of reality checks. Very high expectations were raised and not always met, but there has been a tremendous amount of work and a maturing of the industry.

“There are now several companies that learned from those experiences, and we are now at the point where a lot of devices are now technologically possible,” Dr. Nisato added. “OLED became very clearly a mainstream technology. We see movement toward flexible OLEDs, which are not printed in the beginning, and devices for human machine interfaces in general. Touch screens and wearables are human-centric and are important areas for printed electronics.”

“If we look to the field of flexible and printed electronics, a lot of start-ups vanished from the market, but there are also other companies that really established themselves in this market,” said Dr. Andreas Willert of the Fraunhofer Institute for Electronic Nano Systems ENAS. “There has been some interest from printing shops, but most of them, especially settled in the graphics arts industry, are not aware that besides new inks, a new workflow is also needed. I think it’s easy to add conductive traces to a printing product, but that isn’t the whole story. This gap some start-ups and other companies are filling in, bringing a whole set of competencies like electronics, circuit design and device design. It seems to be easier for them to add the printing competence than the other way round. Additionally we see new material being developed to enable OLED or other functionalities. Looking at printed electronics, the lack of materials that is the real barrier for further adoption.”

Paul Heremans, director of imec’s large area electronics department, said that flexible electronics products have already made considerable headway in the market, thanks to mobile phones.

“The Galaxy Smartphone series displays are the first products where we see electronics made on plastic that have come out,” said Heremans. “We realize that this is really manufacturable. The display is not printed nor is it flexible, but it is fabricated on a plastic substrate. It announces the field, if you wish, and it is a high end product. This shows that low cost and low margins should not be emphasized.”

Dr. Stephan Kirchmeyer, COPT Center, University of Koln, noted that the field has become more mature.

“‘Flexible’ displays have appeared on the market. Unfortunately the term ‘flexible’ at present is used in a misleading way,” Dr. Kirchmeyer observed. “First it has been used for curved TV and smart phones. Curved TV are now more or less standard devices. All Samsung Edge models require a flexible OLED display including a flexible backplane. Other companies in Taiwan are working on flexible OLED. One of the next milestones is believed to be foldable smart phones with a display which will be bent during use. It is the overall opinion that such devices will take some more time to appear on the market. Apparently existing barrier layers/films seem not to be not sufficiently robust at present. I have heard voices saying this might need additional two to three years to become mature. The trend from smart phones via activity trackers to textiles with integrated biosensor is ongoing.”

“Printed, flexible electronics have historically been used in applications with modest performance requirements involving passive assemblies (e.g., wiring harnesses),” said Prof. Craig Armiento of UMass Lowell’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who serves as the director of the Printed Electronics Research Collaborative (PERC). “The feature sizes of such printed devices are large enough that traditional screen- or gravure printing can be used. During the last five years, there has been interest in more demanding applications, many involving wireless technologies requiring higher frequency operation as well as the integration of active electronics. As a result of these increasing demands, there is a need for finer printed features and the integration of RF/microwave electronic integrated circuits (ICs).”

PARC sees flexible and printed electronics as an important opportunity. “At the highest level, our goal is to figure out the future of R&D,” Janos Veres, the leader of PARC’s Novel and Printed Electronics Program, said. “Our goal is to figure out the future of electronics.”

Dr. Ye Tao, team leader, Organic Materials and Devices, Information and Communications Technologies for the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), observed that printed electronics area a good supplement but not an alternative to traditional electronics devices.

“In the past few years, the field is becoming much more realistic,” said Dr. Tao. “We went through the hype a few years ago where everyone thought PE could do everything, and now we realize the limitations and advantages and have become more realistic.

Now there is more emphasis on hybrid electronics, combining printed and silicon electronics.”

“Printable electronics is, of course, not an end in itself, but an enabling technology that compliments traditional silicon-based electronics,” said Steven Bagshaw, business development manager, CPI. “Over the last five years the printed electronics landscape has changed significantly in terms of where demand for the application of the technology is coming from. Whereas previously the emphasis was very much on flexible displays, at CPI we have noticed that market traction is now geared toward the Internet of Things (IoT) and the development of the printed sensors and antennas, which are required to realize this.”

Promising Markets for Flexible and Printed Electronics

Interestingly, these institutions are finding opportunities in many different fields.

“The IoT promises to be one of the most revolutionary technological transformations since the beginning of the Internet, with predictions indicating that more than 50 billion objects will be connected by 2020. This opens up an almost endless list of potential markets,” said Bagshaw. “Printable electronics will help make the IoT a reality and facilitate the addition of electronics to everyday items such as packaging, wall paper, flooring and buildings, to name just a few examples.

“Here at CPI we are also receiving a lot of enquiries from end users to develop printed electronics applications in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sector by embedding low cost printed sensors, or NFC antennas into the box or packet,” Bagshaw added.

“Smart packaging can provide important information about and monitor the conditions a product has been exposed to during its journey through the supply chain. It is also possible to use smart packaging to identify and guard against counterfeiting and third party interference. CPI is working in a project alongside GSK, AstraZeneca and the University of Cambridge to bring smart packaging technologies to market that have the potential to improve medicine manufacturing and supply, offer more personalized, faster and cheaper drug delivery, and drive advances in product quality, affordability and volume flexibility.”

“Our research at the Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute (RURI) and PERC is directed at embedding RF/microwave electronics into 3-D objects or on flexible, nonplanar substrates,” Prof. Armiento said. “We integrate printed, wireless components such as antennas with active ICs.”

Dr. Willert noted that advertising is a promising market, as are the commodity chains in general. “Having some further functionalities in counterfeiting, detecting products and aspects of the IoT are very promising,” Dr. Willert added, “We think good markets are large area devices like printed solar cells or photodetector arrays for sensors,” Dr. Tao said. “The energy you can harvest is proportional to the surface area. Sensor arrays can help avoid false alarms, as sensitivity is proportional to the surface area.”

Dr. Nisato added that there are unique opportunities in organic and printed photovoltaics that are device-based. 

“At CSEM, we have a varied pipeline of projects,” said Dr. Nisato. “We are working on hybrid electronics, and were recently recognized by ESA for technical work. We are developing printed sensors for consumer health applications, such as monitoring sweat and pH. We have been working on printed PV with the Sunflower EU project.”

Researchers believe that the best is yet to come for flexible and printed electronics.

“The future of flexible and printed electronics is the multi-million (or billion) dollar question,” Dr. Nisato concluded. “One of the things that I am seeing is that there is an increasing number of industries outside of printed electronics that are waiting to see what products will be available, such as in automotive or consumer electronics, and then they begin to integrate printed electronics into their products. What we can do today is more that what we could do in the past, but we also have to manage expectations to succeed.”