The fledgling sector in Europe for printed electronics has now reached a crucial stage as projects
In recent months Nanoident has opened the first printed semiconductor plant in Austria for the production, initially, of photodetector arrays. Plastic Logic of the UK has raised $100 million in investment funds to build a facility at Dresden, Germany, to make organic backplane transistors for e-paper devices. PolyIC of Germany has been selling the first printed transistors for RFID labels.
However, attendees to this April’s Printed Electronics Europe conference at Cambridge, England, organized by market research organization IDTechEx, were told that while there is increased availability of low-cost technologies and materials, there is a lack of creativity in developing applications for them.
“There is a lot happening in materials, electronic inks and equipment among chemical companies, ink makers and press equipment manufacturers,” Peter Harrop, IDTechEx’s chairman, said at the meeting. “But a lot more innovation is needed in applications so that markets can be established for printed electronic products.”
The conference, which is now one of the biggest gatherings in printed electronics in Europe, reflects the increasing attention the fledgling sector is receiving. The attendance of approximately 330 was 50 percent higher than last year, while the number of exhibitors went up by over a half to 25.
Although output is accelerating relatively quickly in Europe – mainly in the form of printed products to be tested by prospective customers – progress has been slow in some key segments.
Demand for printed radio frequency identification (RFID) tags has been lower than previously predicted, especially in logistics. “There is an awful lot of activity in the RFID market in terms of product development but there is not a lot of commercial-scale business in materials,” said David Potter, commercial director of Additive Process Technologies of the UK, which has a technology for a roll-to-roll (R2R) process for copper antennas for RFID tags.
Mr. Harrop told the conference that the difficulties that even a major retailer like Wal-Mart was having in the U.S. in persuading suppliers to adopt RFID systems showed the extent of the hurdles to the fast expansion of tagging in the retail market.
PolyIC, a joint venture between the German electrical engineering and electronics giant Siemens AG and foil products maker Leonhard Kurz GmbH, believes that the realization of its objective of providing printed RFIDs for the tagging of individual consumer products or items could take longer than planned. The finalization of an international standard for item tagging – the EPC global standard – could now take several years.
“The production of printed RFIDs for item tagging has taken longer than expected, particularly since an EPC standard is not yet available,” explained Wolfgang Clemens, head of applications at PolyIC, which has scheduled 2008/2010 for the commercialization of an item-level RFID tag.
“We’ve decided that the prototype RFID we now have needs to be improved if we are to get the high performance required for item tagging,” he continued. “We’re starting instead with a simple-type RFID which can used to protect products like pharmaceuticals against counterfeiting. We will then ratchet up the development work to provide a high performance tag.”
Chris McNab, technical marketing specialist at Ciba Specialty Chemicals, which has just launched a range of conductive inks primarily for the RFID antenna segment, told the meeting that he thought it would be “an awful long time before (there is a market for) item level tagging.” However, his company is finding a lot of opportunities in the pallet-and-case transportation sector.
The way the market for RFID tags is evolving reflects the pattern of the development of much of the rest of the printed electronics sector in Europe.
Nick Stone, managing director and founder of Novalia, a startup in Cambridge, England, which develops applications for printed electronics, said there are two groups currently operating in the sector.
“One is research-driven and is investing in high risk new processes and new markets,” he noted. “The other is market-driven and is looking for ways of making printed electronic products available with existing equipment and presses, rather than waiting for a research breakthrough in the future.”
Among the fastest growing companies in printed electronics at the moment in Europe are specialists in electroluminescent (EL) displays for buildings, parts of outdoor advertisement billboards or panels in watches, instruments and electronic products.
Elumin8 Systems, Poole, Dorset, England, which applies its EL technology to point-of-sale and outdoor advertising and interior and exterior architectural lighting, reached £1 million ($2 million) in sales five years after its foundation in 1998. “We’ll double our sales figures again by next year,” said Richard Kirk, managing director.
Last Christmas, Elumin8 did the design work for an award-winning EL advertising campaign in the UK by T-Mobile. This involved screenprinting by contract of 1,400 EL posters, which had an operating failure rate of only 0.25 percent.
“We are creating animated walls which look very sexy and are very inexpensive,” said Mr. Kirk. “I cannot imagine another technology which can provide the same visual effect and can be as cheap.”
Many companies are active in the research-driven part of the market because of long-term prospects for new technologies, materials and markets. IDTechEx predicts that by the mid-2020s, total global printed electronics sales could be worth as much as $300 billion.
“Commercial sales of our conductive inks and materials are very low at the moment because the market is still in its early stages,” said one exhibitor at the conference. “There’s a lot of interest, but most people are doing R&D and just experimenting using small presses, mostly inkjet.”
Many of the companies trying to establish themselves as electronic ink manufacturers are willing to devote resources to R&D programs. Some are materials producers which are moving downstream into ink formulation.
Ciba has recently set up a number of R&D partnerships with research institutes, technology companies and startups to develop printed electronics materials.
“There has to be a multidisciplinary approach to the market,” said Mr. McNab. “We have to collaborate with raw material suppliers, press equipment manufacturers, printers and others to develop the market.”
Although it is currently focusing on the segment for printed RFID using printed antennas with a silver-based ink, it expects to expand into areas like printed electrodes, batteries and circuits and tamper-proof and smart packaging.
BASF, an exhibitor at the conference, announced in April a partnership with Polyera Corporation, Skokie, IL, a startup in printed electronics materials and technologies. The alliance will concentrate on the development and commercialization of new organic semiconductors and dielectrics for conventionally designed printed circuits.
“This partnership complements the expertise that BASF has built up in this area by itself as well as through a network of cooperations,” said Peter Eckerle, project manager at BASF Future Business. “We are well positioned to develop superior material systems.”
Agfa and H.C. Starck, also both exhibitors, revealed details of their own improvements to a conductive polymer – polyethylenedioxythiophene-polystyrenesulfonate (PEDOT/PSS) – which was first developed 15 years ago by their former parent company Bayer. Both companies, which have since been divested and are independent of each other, have moved into the formulation of electronic inks.
Other companies, like Fujifilm Dimatix, Santa Clara, CA, a subsidiary of Fujifilm Corporation of Japan, have become both a formulator of electronic inks and press and dispensing equipment manufacturers.
Linda Creagh, business development director at Fujifilm Dimatix, described how her company had introduced a micro inkjet printer – the Dimatix Materials Printer – to help to expand the electronics inkjet sector.
“When a company has the idea of trying inkjet it does not have to make a huge investment with our machine,” she explained. “It enables processes to be developed, through the evaluation, for example, of cure cycles for plastic substrates and of fluid adhesion before the scaling-up to commercial production.”
Many companies manufacturing printed electronic products are making their own inks. “For every product, a special ink has to be formulated because each application has its own specific needs,” said Frank Padinger, co-founder and chief technology officer of Nanoident.
One major problem still dogging all formulators of electronic inks is the continued poor conductivity or mobility of the core organic polymers inside them. Developers of inks have the option of using inorganic materials like silicon and metals to boost the conductivity but this can be at the expense of printability.
For the ink producer, it has become a matter of whether they should focus on making inorganic materials printable or whether they should concentrate on raising the conductivity of the polymers. In fact, a growing number of companies have decided to try to develop hybrid organic and inorganic materials, Mr. Harrop noted.
There are many technologies in the early stages of development which have the potential to transform the economics of printed electronics.