The printed electronics (PE) industry is one of much promise, with huge expectations going forward. There have been areas where significant gains have been made, while other segments remain relatively unfulfilled. There remain major questions to be answered, including the actual production of the printed products.
As we enter the new year, it is the ideal time to see where the PE market actually stands today, the questions going forward and what likely lies ahead.
When one considers it, the PE market can be roughly broken down into a few segments: photovoltaics, batteries and sensors, displays and lighting, and RFID. Some of these fields – RFID, lighting and photovoltaics come to mind – have enjoyed growth overall, while printing remains a key opportunity. Other segments, such as displays and batteries, have seen strong starts.
Strong Areas for PE
In particular, the area of displays has perhaps given PE the strongest foothold to date. eReaders have flourished, with more than 25 varieties of eReaders currently in the market.Many of these utilize technology from E Ink, the Cambridge, MA specialist whose Vizplex technology appears in the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, among many other leading products.
E Ink was involved in the industry’s largest acquisition in 2009, as Taiwan-based Prime View International (PVI), a leader in thin film technology, bought the company. PVI is now the world’s largest manufacturer of e-paper modules.
Two other companies in the eReader space are poised to make major moves in 2010, with products being showcased at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Liquavista, a spin-out of the Philips Research Labs, is using electrowetting techniques for its eReaders; the company was honored as the winning Technology Company at the Eurecan European Venture Contest, selected over nearly 400 other technology companies to win the top technology title.
Color is the key element to the success of eReaders in the future, and it has been a challenge to date. Liquavista is making major news already in 2010, as it launched LiquavistaColor, its latest technology platform, which brings full color capability to the field.
The other key development is the Que reader, Plastic Logic’s long-awaited eReader designed for business professionals. Que will allow users to connect to business and professional newspapers, books and periodicals, and also supports the document formats such as PDF, Word, PowerPoint and Excel.
There are plenty of top companies preparing to make gains in displays. eMagin, Kent Displays, MFLEX, Novaled, Sumation and Universal Displays are companies to keep an eye in 2010 and beyond.
On the lighting side, there has been growth in the development of LED and OLED lighting, as the major lighting manufacturers – General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania – are focusing their efforts on these technologies. While printing the lighting has yet to become a commercial reality, it is believed that OLED is an area that will be ideal for printing in the coming years.
Batteries and sensors are other areas where PE has enjoyed solid success. Blue Spark Technologies, Cymbet, Enfucell and Power Paper are among the industry leaders in the field of printed batteries, which are making headway in use in RFID tags, smart cards and packaging. Smart cards are a good opportunity, with companies such as NTERA making gains in the field.
Meanwhile, PE could become a dominant approach in some major markets, but the technology still needs to be refined. In particular, photovoltaics and RFID offer sizable opportunities. Photovoltaics (PV) have come a long way from the tradition rigid solar cells, which remain the most efficient way of gathering solar energy. However, rigid cells don’t offer the flexibility needed for chargers or building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), which envision wrapping buildings with PV. Companies are developing thin-film, flexible solar cells using technologies as diverse as amorphous silicon (aSi), cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS), dye-based solar cells (DSSC) and organic photovoltaics (OPV). These technologies still need to improve on efficiency, particularly outside of the laboratory and in production, but gains are being announced frequently.
Printing offers the least expensive approach to manufacturing solar cells, and three manufacturers – Heliovolt, Konarka and Nanosolar – are using printing to make their cells.
Nanosolar, most notably, opened serial production plants in San Jose, CA, and Luckenwalde, Germany, in 2009. According to the company, the factory is automated to sustain a production rate of one panel every 10 seconds, or an annual capacity of 640MW when fully operational. The company also reported that NREL independently verified several of the company’s CIGS cell foils to be as efficient as 16.4 percent.
RFID is another key area for PE. The ability to fully print RFID tags and avoid the costs of silicon and assembly, thus ultimately reaching the one-cent tag goal, is a major driver. Companies led by Kovio and PolyIC GmbH are among those that have made headway in printing RFID chips.
What will 2010 hold for the PE industry? It is likely to be a year full of new developments in these fields, with gains being made by companies and at universities, and PE developers and manufacturers developing new applications along the way.