The market for flexible and printed electronics is seeing significant growth, according to Nicolas Bernardin, deputy managing director at CERADROP. “Lots of research laboratories from all over the world are working very hard on the latest developments for new applications. Printed electronics is one of the fastest growing technologies in the world, which is currently reaching high commercialization,” Bernardin said.
“We certainly are seeing consumer scale products manufactured with our Aerosol Jet PE systems making their way to market,” said Mike O’Reilly, director, Aerosol Jet, product leader, Optomec Inc. “In particular, smartphones are manufactured using Aerosol Jet technology for printing antenna and sensors as part of the overall manufacturing process. Aerosol Jet is also being used at production scale to print sensors onto 3D parts. These sensors are used for structural health monitoring, part of the Industrial Internet of Things.
“In addition to printing antenna and sensors, we are seeing an increased demand for our technology in the advanced packaging sector due to our ability to print features below 50 microns,” O’Reilly added. “We are also receiving interest from the automotive sector due to our ability to functionalize 3D parts such as injection molded parts, which are replacing traditional cable and harness assemblies.”
Pete Hessney, president of Sensor Films, Inc., said that his company is a relatively new entrant to this field; its experience dates from the launch of its Starlight Platform in 2015.
“Since then, we have seen global interest from large manufacturers seeking a digital printing solution for improved workflow and faster time to market,” he said. “We have seen interest in faster prototyping systems and production scale printable electronics integrated with pre-and post-printing technologies. In general, we are seeing significantly increased interest for large scale printed electronics production solutions.”
Growing interest in a growing market
There are a multitude of growth opportunities for flexible and printed electronics manufacturers. According to Stan Farnsworth, VP of marketing for NovaCentrix, companies are looking for help getting electrical functionality onto substrates that are being selected because of their ability to enable new form factors, and because of new application criteria.
“This need is common throughout the emerging application areas of wearables, IoT, smart packaging, and even in automotive, aerospace and defense,” he said. “I think the message of printed and flexible electronics enabling new form factors and new functionality is being heard. We need to continue to promote that message.”
More specifically, there has been increased interest in the wearables market. John Palazzolo, director, marketing and sales, Adphos North America, Inc., said that his company has seen a significant increase in interest for stretchable and textile applications.
As it relates to equipment, Palazzolo said, “As manufacturers with pilot lines are looking to scale up to full production, we have seen many manufacturers looking to leverage their pilot line equipment into their production level processes. This is really one of Adphos’ core strengths as our technology is scalable from small lab/pilot lines to full blown production level systems.”
Other areas of note include printed batteries, ultra-thin films, on-body sensors, photovoltaics and 3D printing, said Louis Panico, CEO of XENON Corporation.
Panico said that requirements in the near-term – for research, pilot and roll-to-roll equipment – will focus on added flexibility and adaptability to accommodate ever evolving application studies.
“OEM product suppliers require the ability to integrate equipment configurations that can incorporate existing printing technologies to gain experience,” Panico said.
“Nanomaterial researchers, seeking best-fit sintering exposure conditions, are pressing for equipment with greater ease-of-use, wider operating conditions and scalable systems.”
The potential in the printed electronics market feels almost limitless, according to some manufacturers. “What we could not even imagine before has become so real,” said CERADROP’s Bernardin. “Flexible and printed electronics manufacturers are on the motorway of strategic development by producing these tiny smart devices with strong functional capabilities. The tendency that we can observe is the strong desire to have our devices more lightweight, rollable and more interconnected. Printed electronics has taken possession of various applications, providing high added value functions for many domains: electronics, aerospace, automotive, bio-medical, smart packaging and smart buildings.”
Bernardin added that smart packaging applications are one of the areas of greatest interest. “The integration of printed electronics devices such as RFID tags into the flexible substrates offers something new for the products. This could completely revolutionize our behavior in choosing a product, thanks to this increasing potential to see – so, what is inside?! In this case, the printed electronics adds new features, smartness into packaging to make smart packaging available at an industrial scale.”
Printed electronics manufacturers are working to help their customers transition to this time of connectivity and technological advancement. Hessney, of Sensor Films, said that his customers are looking to transition to the advantages of a digital workflow compared to traditional analog processes in use today.
“They come to us as we use industrial inkjet technology that brings easy access to mass customization or product serialization, but more importantly, it enables rapid prototyping, faster iterations during product development and in the end, shortens time to market. We work with our customers to help plan their future production lines.
These lines will integrate digital deposition of decorative or functional inks in-line with pre- and post-printing steps. We are particularly excited about integrating pick-and-placement of discrete electronic components on flexible substrates followed by encapsulation.”
The field of printed electronics looks very bright, and equipment for this market will continue to evolve alongside it. Frank Schäfer, sales director, KROENERT GmbH & Co KG, noted that his company will make its seventh appearance at LOPEC this year, and will show a drying section of its small scale production LabCo coating machinery series. He sees the automobile industry, medicine and packaging as good opportunities.
O’Reilly of Optomec Inc. said the company is “bullish” on the deployment of printed electronics equipment within consumer and industrial manufacturing settings.
“We are there already and expect to see further expansion of this new generation of printed electronics solutions that help address next generation flexible electronic products,” O’Reilly said. “However, we see this as an evolutionary expansion where current technology can still play a large role in the manufacturing process while next generation printed electronics products address process gaps.”
As the market continues to grow, equipment suppliers are not only excited about new products, but the growing acceptance of their current lineup.
“As we learn about more types of opportunities, and consider the evolving direction of printed and flexible electronics applications, we continue to make substantial investments in new technologies, both from within NovaCentrix as well as from outside innovators,” Farnsworth added. “Our technology roadmap is exciting, and I’m looking forward to the coming 12-36 months as we continue to develop these technologies.”
Hessney of Sensor Films believes that printable electronics will continue to become a bigger part of traditional production processes. “It will be an enabling technology for many new devices and applications, particularly in wearables and related items,” he said.
Adphos North America, Inc. has nearly doubled its business in the printed electronics market every year over the last few years, according to Palazzolo. “As advances in chemistries for liquids and substrates continues to advance, Adphos believes the market will continue to grow exponentially over the next five to 10 years."
XENON Corporation’s Panico said that, looking forward, the company remains very positive that the industry will evolve over the next decade beyond today’s applications such as RFID tags and OLED displays. “Similar to how the development of the transistor created so many applications that were unpredictable, so we believe the evolution of printed electronics will bring about innovation spanning many industries,” he said.