The printed electronics (PE) industry has continued to make headway in the market place, as new products reach commercial success. While it appears that 2014 will be a landmark year, with the plans for Bemis Company to commercialize Thin Film Electronics’ (Thinfilm) Intelligent Packaging Platform, a flexible sensing platform for the packaging market, there has been plenty of news from the industry during the past year as well.
There are lots of new products out on the market. Aside from Thinfilm, Cambrios, MC 10, T-Ink, PragmatIC Printing and many other companies are making gains in the flexible and printed electronics market. Isorg, Solicore, Plastic Logic and other PE manufacturers are also among the companies making headway in their respective fields
Part of this success is due to the collaborations in the field, as companies are choosing to partner with specialists in other disciplines to develop products for consumers. Thinfilm has built an ecosystem with Imprint Energy, Acreo AB, PST Sensors, Polyera, Solvay and Inktec. PragmatIC has its own ecosystem, working with the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI). CPI also works closely with Peratech, whose QTC (Quantum Tunnelling Composite) pressure sensing material is making gains in displays.
Material companies like cynora, SmartKem, Cima Nanotech and others are earning awards for their materials. Research institutes and companies have begun building pilot production lines. CPI has an extensive production line in place, and organic photovoltaic specialist Disa Solar also opened its own line.
As always, there are plenty of changes in the industry as well. There have been some major acquisitions in the market; perhaps the most noteworthy was Cheil Industries’ acquisition of a majority stake in Novaled, a leader in OLED technologies and materials, in August. Cheil Industries, a subsidiary of Samsung (which owns the rest of Novaled), paid €260 million for the company. This signals the further growth of the OLED market.
One of the most interesting companies in the PE space has been Printechnologics, which has sold hundreds of millions of its sheetfed-printed Touchcode systems. Printechnologics is now part of T-Ink, another PE industry leader that has had strong commercial success.
In the RFID market, Quake Global acquired ODIN RFID. In the CIGS solar market, Hanergy, a leader in China’s renewable energy field, followed up on its 2012 acquisitions of MiaSole and Solibro by purchasing Global Solar Energy. Nanosolar, which was using a proprietary printing process, went out of business in the U.S. in July. In December, SolarWorld acquired Bosch’s silicon-based solar energy operations.
On the equipment side, MGI Group acquired PE inkjet printer specialist Ceradrop.
Printed and flexible electronics are making gains toward commercialization, and it is likely that more consumers will be seeing these results in the coming year.
Most Intriguing Printed Electronics Products of 2013
The flexible and printed electronics’ (PE) industry progress can be seen in products reaching commercialization or nearing market-readiness. Once products enter the market, it leads to other companies thinking about ways to use the technology for their products.
I’ve come up with a list of six of the most promising PE products from the past year. This list is by no means comprehensive.
In alphabetical order:
• Cambrios Technologies: ClearOhm coating material
Cambrios’ ClearOhm coating material replaces ITO (indium tin oxide) for producing transparent conductors. ClearOhm is manufactured using highly conductive silver nanowires, presently produced through slot die coating, although Cambrios is developing gravure capabilities.
ClearOhm material is being used commercially in products by leading brands such as Lenovo, LG (LG V325, a new Windows 8-certified All-in-One PC), NEC, TPK (the world’s largest touch sensor manufacturer) and others that are sold worldwide. As a result, Cambrios received the 2013 Best Commercialization Award at Printed Electronics USA 2013 for its ClearOhm material.
Cambrios has also caught the eye of 3M, announcing in December 2013 that 3M has launched a new touch sensor film, 3M Patterned Silver Nanowire Film, which consists of conductors made of Cambrios’ silver nanowire ink micropatterned by 3M on a polyester (PET) film substrate. According to 3M, the company plans to ramp up its total global touch sensor film manufacturing capacity, including 3M Patterned Silver Nanowire Touch Sensor Film, 3M Patterned Metal Mesh Touch Sensor Film and 3M Advanced ITO Touch Sensor Film, to more than 600,000 square meters per month in 2014.
• MC10: Reebok CHECKLIGHT
The field of head injuries has deservedly received increasing attention in recent years, as the link between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, is becoming clearer. Understandably, there are much stricter protection measures being implemented, right down into children’s leagues.
Creating sensors that monitor impact for helmets and headgear is a logical idea, and it intersects nicely with the growth in wearable flexible electronics. In conjunction with Reebok, MC10, Inc. has developed and brought to market its CHECKLIGHT system, a smart, sensing skullcap to be worn under the helmet. CHECKLIGHT provides data from head impacts, as the display of red and yellow lights indicates the level of impact.
MC10 has received much notice for the Reebok CHECKLIGHT, most recently being named a 2014 International CES Innovations Design and Engineering Awards Best of Innovations honoree along with Reebok.
• Peratech: QTC Ultra Sensor
A specialist in the field of wearable electronics and touch sensors, Peratech’s Quantum Tunnelling Composite (QTC) materials change its resistance when even the lightest pressure is applied. Peratech’s QTC materials and screen inks have been used in commercial products ranging from textiles, robotics, automotive, touch screens, smart phones and consumer electrical products. In recognition of its success, Peratech received the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation in November 2012.
Peratech’s latest development, the QTC Ultra Sensor, only takes a deflection of a micron or so for QTC to sense the touch through the sheet, according to the company, and Peratech’s leaders say that the QTC Ultra Sensor has drawn interest from white goods and automotive manufacturers.
• PolyIC: Automotive center console
A subsidiary of Leonhard Kurz Stiftung & Co. KG, PolyIC GmbH & Co. KG has long been active in the PE field. Most recently, PolyIC received much attention for touch applications for the automotive industry that PolyIC presented at the Kurz booth at K 2013 in Dusseldorf, Germany.
The automotive center console demonstrator, featuring capacitive touch elements and a touch pad and produced in a single curved 3D component, showed the use of functional PolyTC touch sensor film and IMD decorative film by Kurz. Company officials noted that several companies are testing the demonstrator to see how they might be able to design the console into their products.
• PragmatIC Printing: Flexible IC Logic Products
Bringing materials out into the marketplace is a key step for PE manufacturers, and PragmatIC Printing Ltd. recently introduced a new family of flexible integrated circuit (IC) products. These products are supplied on 25µm polyester film (thinner than a typical human hair) and are visually transparent other than the contact pads.
PragmatIC has already shipped prototypes of its IC products to several key customers, and will release the first standardized products in 2014. According to PragmatIC, future versions under development reduce the thickness to less than 10µm (about the diameter of a red blood cell) and offer complete transparency.
Electronic security features for authentication and traceability are among the applications for PragmatIC’s flexible circuits. Beginning in 2014, Andrews & Wykeham Ltd. is collaborating with PragmatIC to deliver a range of security foils and labels based on PragmatIC’s flexible electronic circuits, and is commissioning a complete high-speed roll-to-roll PE integration and conversion line.
• Thin Film Electronics - Smart Sensor Label
Thin Film Electronics (Thinfilm) announced the development of its Smart Sensor Label, a temperature-tracking label, powered solely by thin film batteries, and built entirely from printed and organic electronics.
Meanwhile, Thinfilm’s Intelligent Packaging Platform is expected to appear on the shelves in 2014. What makes this food packaging sensor technology promising is Thinfilm’s collaboration with Bemis Company, a leading supplier of flexible packaging and pressure sensitive materials with sales of $5.14 billion in 2012, to develop a wireless, flexible sensing platform for the food and pharma packaging market.
In December 2013, Thinfilm announced that the Bemis Company has extended its partnership agreement with Thinfilm for two years, and has secured additional access to Thinfilm technologies for brand protection applications in flexible packaging and beverage labeling.