The advantages of printed and flexible electronics are numerous. The first, of course, is cost and manufacturing efficiency. Being able to produce circuitry on a printing press, either sheetfed or roll-to-roll, is a tremendous cost savings. In addition, creating a product that is flexible offers new opportunities and form factors.
However, there are technical hurdles to overcome, and conductive inks have been one area where a great deal of research has been conducted. As a result, there have been numerous advancements in a wide range of disciplines, from metallics to nanoparticle inks, and conductive ink manufacturers say that their sales are growing.
T-Ink has built up an impressive range of projects during the past 10 years. The company has developed more than 2,000 ink formulations for PE projects, and has numerous products in the pipeline. Its T-Ink Smart Surface 3D In-mold Overhead Console, which features screen printed capacitive switches, made its debut in this year’s Ford Fusion.
Terry Kaiserman, co-founder and chief technical officer for T-Ink, Inc., said T-Ink enjoyed growth during the past year as more of its products reached commercialization.
“The release of the 2013 Ford Fusion using our part in the Overhead Console has given printed electronics enormous credibility,” Mr. Kaiserman said. “More and more companies are coming to providers of PE to lower costs, improve performance, lower weight and reduce form factor and, of course, lessen the amount of materials on their bill of materials (BOM). The future of PE is bright and growing, not without its challenges though, but growing none the less.”
“Overall, Sun Chemical saw growth in the conductive inks and printed electronics markets, thanks primarily to the high demand in certain applications, such as permanent and disposable sensors for both the industrial and medical industries,” Roy Bjorlin, global commercial director, electronic materials, Sun Chemical, said. “Due to overcapacity, there was a drop in demand for conventional c-Si photovoltaics.”
“We continue to see our revenues growing, with both the sale of our PulseForge tools as well as our Metalon conductive inks,” said Stan Farnsworth, vice president of marketing for NovaCentrix. “At the end of 2012 we launched our newest PulseForge tool, the PulseForge 1200, for R&D use. This product is addressing the opportunity for R&D users who wish to have access to the sophisticated features of the full-scale PulseForge tools but are not ready for the production capabilities of those larger tools. The low price point for the new 1200 puts that state-of-the-art capability into the hands of exploratory users and developers in printed electronics. We are very pleased at the excellent market response we have received, and within four weeks of launching the tool we are already shipping them to customers.
“While it is true that many organizations who are working in the printed electronics area are at the R&D phase, it is also true that many of those have intentions to scale their efforts into full production volumes,” Mr. Farnsworth added. “Those groups especially appreciate the lineage of the PulseForge tools – that the process conditions developed on the smaller 1200 will translate directly to application with the full size tools to mitigate scale-up risk.”
Scott Gordon, business development manager – DuPont Microcircuit Materials, reported that several new markets and applications have surfaced that utilize conductive inks.
In particular, Mr. Gordon noted two examples: screenprinted, self-limiting heaters and silver conductors for 3D thermoforming in-mold electronics.
“In each case, the applications build from general material performances dating back to the 1990s,” Mr. Gordon added.
“The variety of applications for conductive inks and printed electronics grew,” said Paul Lindquist, business development manager, Methode Electronics, Inc. “I don’t know if the actual volume of ink consumed grew due to the loss of government incentives for the photovoltaic industry, which shrunk considerably. Since that was one of the largest consumer of screen printed conductive silver, the loss of that volume may have offset gains in other areas.”
Dr. Ian Clark, sales and marketing director, Intrinsiq Materials Ltd., noted that the markets for conductive inks and printed electronics continued to grow during the past year, particularly in screenprinting, with photovoltaics (PV) and RFID being particularly strong opportunities.
NANOGAP-USA is a supplier of conductive particle and nanofiber dispersions to conductive ink companies. Darren Bianchi, president of NANOGAP-USA, said he is seeing growth in the market.
“We are seeing growing interest in our products from ink manufacturers as well as increased commercial uptake, indicating that the market is continuing to grow,” Mr. Bianchi said.
“One of our target applications for printed electronics, especially for conductive inks, is touch sensors and their electrodes,” said Shunsuke Nomura, Printed Electronics Department, ToyoChem. “Handset applications with touch sensors will keep growing globally to the extent of 15% to 20% annually. Other applications such as RFID and ePaper will also keep growing, so we believe the market will grow steadily.”
Expectations for the Future
With products heading into production and new applications emerging, printed electronics is making gains in the market. That is good news indeed for conductive ink manufacturers.
“It is clear that the evolution of electronics devices will continue to demand higher performance and lower costs,” Mr. Bjorlin said. “Solutions that include material that can be processed additively and at high speed will continue to be in demand. In addition, there will be a rapid merge of display, communications and security technology in emerging applications such as e-packaging that will drive demand for new and innovative material solutions.”
Mr. Gordon said that this is an exciting time for printed electronics.
“We expect continued growth within the newer applications, plus we foresee ongoing design innovations that will bring new cost effective solutions to several markets, including biomedical, automotive and packaging,” Mr. Gordon added.
“We see the market continuing to grow,” Mr. Bianchi said. “We are a technology-driven company, and we anticipate capitalizing on further new opportunities with new and improved products.”
“Printed electronics is the production method that will increasingly benefit environmental and economic dimensions,” Mr. Nomura said. “We believe printed electronics will be used in several types of applications.”
Mr. Farnsworth said that NovaCentrix is very optimistic about the growth of the market.
“Increasingly we are working with end users who have specific programs with finding and release targets,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “Of course the number of exploratory users is also growing. These are signs of a healthy early-term opportunity and are typical of the classic S-curve for the adoption of emerging technologies.
“At NovaCentrix we are committed to continuing to drive the technologies forward, simultaneously supporting the exploratory users as well as the more savvy, experienced users who are already quite knowledgeable in the space and are already in production of printed electronics-based devices,” Mr. Farnsworth added.
“Printed electronics will continue to make gains in the market in the niches where the process offers function or value,” Mr. Lindquist said. “It will probably never be the largest manufacturing process utilized for electronics, but with increased developments and economies of scale, it will continue to grow as a production method.”
“If you are asking for a ‘State of the Union’ type answer, I can only reply that PE is alive and well and getting healthier every year,” Mr. Kaiserman concluded. “Those that have the funding, like in any industry, should be able to weather the challenges and long lead times to revenue. It’s not easy pioneering new ground, but all of us in the PE field are changing the world for decades to come.”