Printed Electronics Industry: Year in Review

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 01.20.11

Up until now, the PE industry has been one of promise, but 2010 has brought more tangible evidence that people see the future of PE is a bright one

As we head into 2011, it is a good time to look back at the advances that have been made in the printed electronics industry. Up until now, the PE industry has been one of promise, but 2010 has brought more tangible evidence that people see the future of PE is a bright one.

There are two key areas that show this growth: financial investments and new products and partnerships. First, we will take a look at the financial moves that have benefited the industry; second, we will look at the partnerships and products that should continue to drive growth in the coming years.

Acquisition Activity

Merger and acquisition activities indicate interest, as companies look to invest in new technologies and markets. There were a few acquisitions in the PE space, most notably Bayer MaterialScience LLC's acquisition of Artificial Muscle, Inc. (AMI) and 3M’s investment in Printechnologics GmbH.

Artificial Muscle was a 2004 spin-out of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), with an eye toward commercializing its Electroactive Polymer Artificial Muscle (EPAM) technology. While EPAM was initially targeted for applications such as valves, pumps and sensors, AMI sees opportunities in the growing touchscreen market, such as smartphones, gaming controllers and touchpads.

Printechnologics, which was previously Menippos GmbH, has patented data memory and battery systems, which can be produced on paper through conventional printing.

Its latest product introduction, AirCode touch, has tremendous potential. AirCode touch allows the user to place a card, a package or just a piece of paper on their smart phone’s touch screen or hold the smart phone on a label, which will allow access to a brand owner’s app. This could lead to anything from coupons and games to additional information.

That Bayer and 3M are interested in the PE market is not surprisingly, as both companies already have stakes in the field. These investments show their confidence in the potential of the field.

Teijin Limited acquired NanoGram Corporation, a specialist in novel nanomaterials design technology, to function as a U.S. base for the development of silicon inks with semiconductor properties and the processes to manufacture such inks.

There were other notable acquisitions in the RFID field. Federal Signal Corporation acquired Sirit Inc., a leading provider of RFID technology. Identive Group, Inc. acquired Smartag, a Singapore-based manufacturer of RFID inlays and inlay applications, as well as RockWest Technology Group.

ODIN Technologies acquired Reva Systems, a leading RFID software supplier to dozens of global organizations. Trimble announced it acquired the business of ThingMagic, Inc., a leading developer of RFID technology.

Capital Investments

Start-up PE companies need financial backing to support their innovative products, and venture capital firms and other financial backers choose carefully where to invest their money. The PE field saw more investment in 2010, even though the after effects of the global recession are lingering.

There were plenty of noteworthy investments in the field. In the last month alone, Blue Spark Technologies, a leader in thin film battery production, received increased financial backing.

Blue Spark Technologies closed a $7.5 million Series B investment. Existing institutional venture investors Early Stage Partners and SunBridge Partners were joined by several private investors.

Odersun AG, a manufacturer of customized thin-film solar cells and modules, received state guarantees from the Federal State of Brandenburg for €10 million in loans in order to advance its ramp-up of production and market entry with customized solar products.

Thin Film Electronics, the first company in the world to produce polymer memories in large scale using roll-to-roll printing, successfully completed a placement of 23.3 million new shares. The gross proceeds from the placement totaled NOK 18.7 million ($3.15 million). Including the two proposed warrants issued to each share subscribed, the potential gross proceeds are NOK 62.9 million ($10.6 million). Thinfilm offered up to 23,314,000 new shares and received subscriptions for 81.2 million shares; the placement was subscribed by 3.5 times.

Ascent Solar Technologies, Inc. closed its previously announced public offering of 5.25 million shares of common stock at a price of $4.15 per share. Ascent Solar received net proceeds, after offering expenses and underwriting discounts and commissions, of approximately $20.25 million.

Identive Group entered into subscription agreements for the private placement of up to 4,097,624 shares of its common stock to accredited and other qualified investors in the U.S. and internationally. The anticipated gross proceeds will be approximately $10.35 million.

TAGSYS received €8 million in new investment, led by current investors Elliot Advisors, Endeavour Vision, Add Partners, DFJ Esprit and Saffron Hill. The funds will be used to expand its distribution channels, help partners secure new markets, and continue to develop UHF and HF solutions optimized for item-level applications for a variety of markets including library, textile services, brand and fashion and healthcare.

Confidex, a specialist in contactless ticketing for mass transportation applications and durable high-performance RFID tag solutions, received €2.7 million from a combination of sources, including a state-owned equity firm, Suomen Teollisuussijoitus Oy (Finnish Industry Investment Ltd.), Aura Capital Oy and previous owners. An additional €2.3 million loan was granted by Finnvera and the Sampo Bank Plc.

These investments indicate that there is a strong belief in the viability of these recipients, and that the field of PE is indeed moving forward.

Advancements in the Field of PE

However, money does not tell the whole story. Without products that are tangible, there would be no interest in investing money in the first place.

During the past year, a number of PE manufacturers and their suppliers have made headway in terms of developing new products and potentially heading into production. Universities and start-ups alike are coming up with new ideas all the time; sometimes it just seems one’s imagination is the limit.

What, then, have been the a few of the major advances that signal good opportunities for printed electronics?

Smart Packaging and Printed Batteries

PE has done well in the fields of packaging and greeting cards. For example, Nano ePrint Limited, a specialist in the design and manufacturing of planar nano-electronics, announced that in partnership with Novalia Ltd., it is developing all-printed electronic greeting cards for Tigerprint Ltd., a subsidiary of Hallmark. The company is discussing these concepts with a variety of consumer goods and packaging companies.

In July, GSI Technologies and NTERA announced they successfully demonstrated the first hot-laminated display card modules using NanoChromics display (NCD) technology. It is printed on a flexible substrate, and driven by a conventional, off-the-shelf microcontroller chip.

Printechnologics, a 3M New Ventures funded company, announced the availability of its “AirCode touch” technology, which uses existing multi-touch smart phone displays to read invisible digital information printed on paper, cardboard or foils. “AirCode touch” can be used for a broad variety of marketing and consumer information applications. The data tags can be printed on standard offset printing systems allowing very low production cost.

prelonic technologies GmbH launched its Kwizzcard, what the company calls the first fully printed electronic game card. The Kwizzcard is flexible, ultra-thin and incorporates a printed battery, 10 printed push buttons and two printed displays.

Thin Film Electronics ASA, a provider of advanced printed memory technology, and Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) are working together to provide next-generation memory technology enabled through PE.

Kovio, Inc. and Nissan Chemical Industries, Ltd. (NCI) announced a joint collaboration and development agreement. NCI will commercially produce Kovio's proprietary silicon ink technology and supply Kovio with silicon ink products for its RF products.

Perhaps the most interesting news occurred at Pack Expo International 2010, where Graphic Packaging International (GPI), one of the world’s largest producers of folding cartons and a global leader in coated, recycled boxboard and specialty bag packaging, was named a finalist in the “Package of the Future” competition, a key component of Project 2020: The Consumer Experience.

Working with Blue Spark Technologies, a leader in the printed battery field, and Novalia, a leading PE designer, GPI produced a box of cookies that transforms into an interactive toy fire truck after the cookies are consumed.


The field of thin-film photovoltaics saw more growth in the past year, both in terms of new efficiency standards and in production. On the printing side, Heliovolt announced that it reached 11.5 percent CIGS module efficiency in December.

MiaSolé reported that U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) independently confirmed the 15.7% efficiency of its large area production modules (one square meter in size).

Innovalight, a specialist in silicon ink-based high efficiency solar cell materials and technology, announced that the company achieved a new record of 19 percent conversion efficiency with silicon ink-processed solar cells. The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) in Germany, an official independent solar cell testing center, also measured the results on industry standard size cells made by Innovalight.

Organic photovoltaics (OPV) are a much more recent technology development that offers opportunity for printing solar cells. In July, Solarmer Energy achieved a then-new world record of 8.13% for their organic photovoltaic (OPV) cell efficiency, certified by NREL. More recently, Konarka Technologies reported that NREL certified that Konarka’s OPV solar cells demonstrated 8.3% efficiency, while Heliatek GmbH also reached an efficiency of 8.3% on an active surface area of 1.1 cm2, independently confirmed by the Fraunhofer ISE CalLab.

On the production side, Nanosolar announcing the expansion of its San Jose, CA printed CIGS solar cell factory to 115MW nameplate capacity in early fall. Odersun launched its second thin-film CIS solar factory, SunTwo. In May, Ascent Solar Technologies announced that it successfully began initial production of monolithically integrated flexible CIGS modules from its high volume FAB 2 production plant in Thornton, CO. Ascent Solar also received an R&D 100 Award for its flexible CIGS on plastic substrates.


Displays have been an important opportunity for PE, and gains were made in this field as well. Color display technology moved forward in 2010. In early 2010, Liquavista BV launched LiquavistaColor, which offers bright full color capability and the advantages of full interactivity and hi-fidelity video at ultra-low power to future advanced eReader devices for the first time. E Ink Holding announced the release of its next generation display technology, E Ink Triton, which enables color e-paper solutions.

MFLEX announced that Pelikon’s MorphPad technology has been integrated into the Toshiba Biblio ebook reader mobile phone, which features a touch screen with a slide-out keyboard using MorphPad display as a numeric keypad in the portrait orientation that automatically morphs into a full QWERTY keypad in landscape mode. MorphPad displays can use various colors, set on a black background, providing high contrast and visual impact using SmartInk technology.

Universal Display announced significant advances in the performance of its UniversalP2OLED solution-processible, phosphorescent OLED material systems for use with solution-based manufacturing processes. Through the development of optimized ink formulations, the company has also demonstrated inkjet printed P2OLED devices with comparable performance to devices made by spin-coating.

Add-Vision has also moved forward this year, as its printed P-OLED technology continues to make progress in terms of device lifetimes and manufacturability.

There are many other new applications for PE, and it is certain that more lie ahead in 2011.