PE USA 2011 Showcases Growth of Commercialization of Printed Electronics Products

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 01.25.12

There appears to be good news ahead for the PE market

There has been much potential for growth in printed electronics (PE) in recent years, as improvements in raw materials and equipment technology are continuing on a consistent basis. However, people are waiting to see more printed electronics products reach end users.

There have been success stories, such as E Ink and the eReader market and some novelty products. However, aside from E Ink, mainstream success has been elusive.

E Ink is the largest supplier of displays to the eReader industry. (Photo courtesy of E Ink)
There appears to be good news ahead for the PE market, though. Much of Printed Electronics USA 2011, held at the Santa Clara Convention Center, was focused on some of the commercial successes of PE, as companies ranging from Procter & Gamble and MWV Packaging to T-Ink and Nth Degree are heading to market with compelling products that signal that commercialization of PE is moving closer.

Raghu Das, CEO, of IDTechEx, Printed Electronics USA 2011’s organizer, led off the conference with an overview of the PE field, titled “Printed Electronics State of Play: 2012-2022.” Mr. Das placed the printed and potentially printed electronics market to be $4.5 billion in 2011. He broke down the PE market into three main strategies. The first, Replace Nothing, is a field that creates new value; eReaders, a $1 billion industry, is one example.

OSRAM is working on mass production of OLEDs. (Photo courtesy of OSRAM)
The second category, Replacing Something Simple in Existing Electronics/Electrics, is seen in the work being done on PEDOT:PSS as an alternative to ITO on touch screens, as well as the development of conductive copper inks as an alternative to silver. The third strategy, Replacing a Whole Existing Electronic, can be seen in the work being done on OLED displays and lighting.

Mr. Das projected the potential PE market to be $45 billion by 2021, led by OLED, which IDTechEx estimates will be 35 percent printed within the decade.

Dr. Kenneth McGuire, principal scientist at Procter & Gamble (P&G), was next, covering “Consumer Electronics Applications.” P&G had sales of more than $80 billion in 2010, having 24 $1 billion brands, and its interest in PE has long been seen as an important signal.

Dr. McGuire said that P&G focuses on the end-users experience, both at the first moment of truth (store shelf) and second moment of truth (actual usage of the product).

“Consumer understanding is at the heart of everything we do at P&G,” Dr. McGuire said.

Dr. McGuire said that PE features three distinct areas - displays, logic and power storage - and all are needed to function for the system to work.

“I think of printed electronics as three distinct areas, and most do not overlap with today’s industry,” Dr. McGuire said. “For most applications, all three would be required, but how do you integrate all three?”

P&G did announce its first PE packaging system. In conjunction with Nth Degree, P&G recently designed a Puffs dispenser that utilizes printed electroluminescent lighting actuated by a non-disposable base with printed contacts. For P&G, the key is to have consumers see the value of the product.

Michael Londo, director of open innovation at MWV Packaging, next analyzed “When Technology and Market Need Match,” a look at how printed electronics can help provide security systems for retailers.

MWV has developed its Natralock system with Siren technology in conjunction with Western Michigan University, Alpha Shrink Solutions and Vorbeck Materials. It is a reusable module using conductive graphene inks that are flexographically printed inside the box. This system can impact inventory shrinkage in the marketplace without the use of bulky security systems; estimates place shrinkage at Wal-Mart at 1.4 percent, which for a company with more than $400 billion in annual sales, works out to more than $5.6 billion in lost or stolen inventory.

“We have done smart packaging since 2004,” Mr. Londo said. “Brand owners are looking for security applications that do not detract from the first moment of truth. We can put the electrical wires on the inside of the box.”

Mr. Londo noted that the system is robust, and is able to pass multiple three-foot drop tests. For retailers, the return on investment would pay for itself within six months. He expects the launch of the new system in 2012, adding that “the technology push in conjunction with market pull provides these opportunities.”

Warren Kronberger, R&D director, The Marketing Store, talked of the potential of printed electronics in “The Promotional Marketing Landscape & Printed Electronics.” Mr. Kronberger spoke of the changes in promotional toys over the years, from in-mold plastic toys to highly complex LED toys, and has collaborated with companies ranging from T-Ink and NXT on conductive projects.

“Printed electronics can play a new role in the play experience,” Mr. Kronberger said. “For the most part, printed electronics is invisible to customers.”

During their talk, Andrew Ferber and Jeff Gentile, co-chairmen of T-Ink Inc., offered a compelling case for the use of PE throughout everyday life. In the past decade, T-Ink has developed PE systems that Mr. Gentile noted encompassed “the low hanging fruit,” such as promotional items, and is now moving quickly forward into more commercial platforms.

One of the most fascinating examples of PE that is heading into the marketplace in 2012 is T-Ink’s printed modules for automotive roof liners. Replacing much larger, heavier modules, T-Ink has created a lightweight, more functional printed system for automakers. T-Ink’s printed roof liners reduce the component’s weight by 70 percent, and its width from 2.75 inches to 0.25 inches. Even more impressively, T-Ink’s printed module offers fast switching on the order of 10 times. The company anticipates more than a million of the units will appear in cars in 2012.

“We can replace physical 3-D switches with 2-D printed components,” Mr. Gentile said.

T-Ink has had numerous successes in segments ranging from toys video games and smart wear in recent years, and Mr. Gentile added that this new platform will allow T-Ink to reach new markets such as construction and transportation in the coming years.

Mr. Ferber noted that T-Ink has more than 2,000 ink and coating formulations, and can print its systems through offset, gravure, flexo, rotary, pad printing, spray coating or any standard printing process.

“If designers can draw a product, we can print it,” Mr. Gentile concluded. “We create game-changing products and services through conductive ink to connect the world.”

The military and aerospace industries are also actively pursuing PE solutions. Dr. Brian Fuchs, mechanical engineer, U.S. Army, presented “Overview of Materials Printing Capabilities and Prototype Development for U.S. Army Applications.” Dr. Fuchs discussed the potential for printed electronics in Army applications.

“We are always interested in state-of-the-art technology such as printed electronics for military systems,” Dr. Fuchs concluded.

Jeff Duce, design engineer for Boeing, discussed “Applications, Needs, and Requirements for Printed Electronics in Aerospace.” He focused on commercial airplane applications, and the benefits printed electronics bring to Boeing. For example, the Boeing 747-8 uses a form of printed electronics on its damage detection sensor on the VCK flaps, and PE can also be utilized in areas ranging from entertainment displays to integrated wiring.

“We need our airplanes to be more efficient,” Mr. Duce said. “Printed electronics are lower weight, and a 1 percent weight reduction on airplanes can create billions in operating cost savings while adding capability. Printed electronics is a key enabler, and Boeing needs new developments in printed electronics.”

Sriram Peruvemba, chief marketing officer, E Ink Holdings, then discussed “My eReader Ate the Library.” Mr. Peruvemba offered his thoughts on change in the field of education and the role of traditional textbooks vs. electronic displays, and said that E Ink Pearl holds 90 percent of the market share.

Mr. Peruvemba noted that 30 percent of libraries in the U.S. have reduced their hours, and that libraries have been on the decline for a long time.

“Elementary school kids are now doing their research on the web,” Mr. Peruvemba said. “Libraries will still be around for a long time, but it is about access to knowledge and cost of content. eTextbooks are the future of education. The potential market is billions of devices. All textbooks will become electronic in the future.”

Dr. David Hamby, research scientist for OSRAM Sylvania, discussed OLED lighting in “Challenges and Opportunities for Printed Electronics in the Lighting Industry.” He discussed inorganic LEDs in general lighting and requirements for printed electronics in lighting.

“One of the most obvious opportunities is printing the circuits,” Dr. Hamby said. “Printed circuits open up material choices such as PET, and the value proposition is lower cost, large area printed circuits through roll-to-roll manufacturing. Roll-to-roll printing of OLEDs offers the promise of fast, high volume processes and an easier supply chain.”

Dr. Mikyong Yoo, senior materials engineer for Artificial Muscle, discussed “Conformable ViviTouch stickers - a New Dimension to Actuators.” Dr. Yoo highlighted Artificial Muscle’s ViviTouch pressure sensitive adhesive stickers utilized on haptic actuators for areas such as gaming controllers, creating different frequencies for actions such as helicopters flying about and explosions.

“Gaming controllers and headphones are limited to a standard buzzing technique,” Dr. Yoo said. “ViviTouch brings new sensory dimensions to mobile gaming.”

Dr. Peter Fischer, director of engineering for Plastic Logic GmbH, discussed “Challenges on the Way from Lab to Large Area Volume Manufacturing of OTFT Backplanes and a First Application in Flexible Displays.”

“It is difficult to scale up,” Dr. Fischer said. “The equipment was different than the pilot line set up, and we had to test new materials. Process differences had consequences on the equipment.”

Dr. Edzer Huitema, CTO of Polymer Vision, discussed “Flexible Displays Development and Commercialization Efforts.” Polymer Vision has developed flexible, rollable displays that can be used in areas ranging from eReaders and smart cards to eTickets and smart phones.

“The key ingredients for rollable displays are a thin display and optimized adhesive,” Dr. Huitema said. “Going down to a 4 mm radius is possible. We are at the forefront of the ‘era of flexible displays.’”

David Lussey, CTO of Peratech Ltd., showcased “Quantum Tunnelling Composites in Printable Electronics.” A composite of nickel and silicon, screenprinted Quantum Tunnelling Composites (QTC) have found opportunities for keypads and switches for fields such as robotics and textiles, and are ideal for touch screens.

The final talk of the afternoon, “Inorganic LED Lighting using Innovative Transparent Conductors,” was presented by Dr. William J. Ray, chief scientist of Nth Degree Technologies. Nth Degree has successfully printed LED lighting, and the results are impressive, to say the least. Dr. Ray noted that the company has orders for its systems, and has the capacity to print the equivalent of 250 million A-19 light bulbs per year on its flexo web press.

“We print LEDs,” Dr. Ray said. “We use 27 micron LEDs, the size of a white blood cell, release it into the ink and print it in a series of layers. We print using high speed screen presses, and will be converting to flexo in the next quarter.”

Optimism Among Suppliers

As a result, there is much optimism about the growth in the PE market. That optimism was echoed by many of the exhibitors at the conference, who are seeing more companies looking at how PE can benefit their product portfolio.

“Definitely, the speed of development is impressive,” said Thomas Kolbusch, vice president, Coatema Coating Machinery GmbH. “Just look at the growth of the conference: the show has grown more than 20% in exhibitor numbers compared to the previous event. There are more and more big players from the material supplier world that are moving into the market. In the same way, more and more start-ups are founded and the Asian market especially invests a lot in the PE field. Over time, there is also a movement from small-scale up to semi-production and the new technologies are becoming part of our daily life.”

“We have seen an explosion of activity in our applications lab and facility from global sources specifically for PE,” said Dr. Saad Ahmed, engineering manager for Xenon Corporation. “These have included interest from ink formulators, device manufacturers and industrial process developers.

“As any emerging technology evolves, the areas that see early deployment are those that have specialist needs which are able to sustain the high cost, low volume production requirements.,” Dr. Ahmed added. “The Xenon R&D equipment product range has been very useful to meet the needs of these early technology adopters. By providing these tools at a practical and cost effective point, significant progress by all players has been made. We are at the point now where the technology is entering into the process evaluation for pilot production and small scale production arena. PE is not at the stage for full blown roll-to-roll production, which is the ultimate goal of this technology, but there has been significant progress such that the way forward is reduced to one of scaling and optimization.”

Geir Harald Aase, vice president communications and IR, Thin Film Electronics ASA, said that progress in printed electronics is being made on all fronts, especially in printed logic.

“Novel materials make it possible to print complementary organic circuits, the organic equivalent of CMOS circuitry.,” Aase noted. “This opens up new fields of use, as now our addressable memory can be combined with sensors, power sources and antennas to power smart applications. At the same time we see that the rapid improvement in printing equipment and processes allows high-volume manufacturing of such printed systems.”

“The market has been good,” said Stan Farnsworth, vice president of marketing for NovaCentrix. “Customers are moving forward; ink orders that were hundreds of grams are now kilos. There is a lot of interest in our copper inks and our tools, and our shipments are increasing. We just launched our products inJapan, and we’ve had multiple sales. However, while more groups are moving forward, uncertainty is still holding some private investments back.”

“We are working with customers on a number of projects,” said Martin De Moya, sales and service manager, Haiku Tech, Inc. “Our experience ranges from flexible batteries, solar cells, displays and temperature sensors. Our machines are primarily targeted for R&Dand pilot production scale.”

“There is no question that the printed electronics market is growing,” said Allen Reid, executive director of NanoGap.“We are seeing growing interest in our conductive inks for applications such as PV and security printing.”

One of the keys for printed electronics is the development of new material and equipment technologies, and there has been much progress in these areas.

“My sense is that a lot of the technical pieces are falling into place, and customers are looking at how printed electronicsfits their products,” Mr. Farnsworth said.

With these gains being made, PEsuppliers throughout the supply chain are optimistic about the coming years.

“Near-term, we are targeting toys and games with our contact-based fully-printed memories,”Mr. Aase said. “We have established a supply chain, with InkTec as our main production partner, and are ready to meet the demand for low-cost high-volume consumer applications. Several leading toy manufacturers have purchased the Thinfilm Toy Development Kit and are evaluating specific toy concepts based on Thinfilm Memory.

“Our vision is ‘memory everywhere,’” Mr. Aase added. “The demonstration of Thinfilm’s Addressable Memory is a significant step toward the vision of a world filled with the ‘Internet of things,’ where everything is connected via a smart tag. System products are integrated systems that combine Thinfilm’s memory technology with other printed components. The target markets for Thinfilm Addressable Memory system products include NFC (Near Field Communications) tags, now available in Android phones, which enable device to device communication and have been predicted to, one day, be on all new objects. Thinfilm also targets sensor tags and disposable price labels. The addressable memory can be integrated with other printed components, such as antennas and sensors, to create fully printed systems for interaction with everyday objects and the ‘Internet of things’ where the temperature of food and drugs are monitored or retail items are tracked individually rather than by pallet, container or truckload with a simple tap of an NFC enabled phone.”

“Over the last year, Xenon has seen sales of PE related equipment skyrocket,” Dr. Ahmed concluded, “In many aspects, commercial success stories are hard to come by, not because they are few but rather that they are typically shrouded in NDAs and corporate confidentiality. Based on the successes, customer feedback and subsequent sales, it is clear that the future for PE is bright and that it is an area that is seeing an accelerated and healthy growth. Though it will be a while before it can compete to replace standard PCBs, in niche areas such as displays, batteries, smart sensors, RFID and flexible electronics PE has shown that small scale deployment is a reality today, and large scale production is a clear and achievable long term objective.”

The products that were showcased during the first day of Printed Electronics USA 2011 show the potential for printed electronics designers and manufacturers to develop new solutions for the marketplace, and these products offer the promise of more to come for the field of printed electronics in the coming years.

For more information on the growth of the printed electronics market, visit www.printedelectronicsnow.com.