Flexible and Printed Electronics in 2016: The Year in Review

By David Savastano, Editor | 01.23.17

With the interest in hybrid production, new opportunities and markets are emerging.

The flexible and printed electronics market continues to expand, as new opportunities are appearing in markets ranging from wearables and sensors to RFID, displays and lighting. Whether it is antennas being printed on the backs of cell phones, displays for consumer appliances and smart packaging to sensors for the Internet of Things, it appears that flexible and printed electronics are poised to appear in more products.

“The interest is increasingly high in adding electronics to everyday items including the wearables space, smart packaging and smart labels,” said Roy Bjorlin, commercial and strategic initiatives director, printed electronics at Sun Chemical. “This is creating demand to develop materials that can require flexibility and can also be processed in high speed.”

Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx, a leading consultancy in the field, says that commercialization is indeed on the rise.

“What’s been really exciting is that a lot of things are coming to commercialization,” Das added. “We’ve seen a lot of simpler things that offer benefits.”

One area of interest is the OLED market. For years, OLEDs have been a leading technology for cell phone displays as well as in some accent lighting, but now, OLEDs are appearing in car tail lights. OSRAM has made significant inroads in OLEDs for the automotive market, with its OLEDs now appearing on the BMW M4 GTS and Audi TT RS.

“This year was a tipping point as we reached the mass market,” said Dr. Arne Fleißner, senior engineer, OSRAM OLED GmbH.  “We believe that the automotive market will be the first mass market.”

In a major manufacturing move, Thin Film Electronics announced plans to lease a new manufacturing facility in Silicon Valley, which will be home to Thinfilm’s new high-volume roll-to-roll manufacturing line. The new line will ultimately increase Thinfilm’s production capacity to five billion NFC OpenSense and NFC SpeedTap tags per year, which the company estimates at $680 million in annual revenue.

One huge key to success is the development of hybrid electronics, led by the NextFlex consortium. Printed electronics faced a serious challenge when it tried to replace incumbent silicon technology. The emergence of hybrid electronics, combining the best of organic- and silicon-based materials, is leading to new opportunities, and even to stretchable electronics.

Dan Gamota, VP of the Hardware Innovation Group at Jabil Circuits, said that unlimited product form factor freedom and the ability to deform (bend, twist and stretch) the product are key differentiators for flexible hybrid electronics (FHE).

“Electronics had historically been rigid and put into a rigid housing, but many advanced flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) systems can take infinite shapes by being deformed (twisting and stretching) and ultimately taking the shape of the housing,” Gamota said. “These FHE systems can conform to the human body or onto 3D structures.”

Mergers and Acquisitions

Mergers and acquisitions were on the rise in the flexible and printed electronics industry during 2016, as international corporations saw opportunities to add to their technological offerings.

Two acquisitions in particular were noteworthy on the component side, as CCL Industries acquired Checkpoint Systems and Emerson purchased PakSense.

CCL Industries is arguably the largest label printer in the world. Its sales in 2015 topped $3 billion, and after the first three quarters of 2016, CCL was already at more than $2.9 billion. The addition of Checkpoint Systems, a major manufacturer of RFID tags and inlays, in March had a lot to do with that increase. In 2015, Checkpoint had revenue of $820 million and adjusted EBITDA of $83 million. The addition puts CCL in an excellent position to branch out into RFID and smart labels.

“We are very pleased to welcome their deeply experienced people to CCL where they will continue to focus on this important industry for emerging ‘smart label’ technologies,” Geoffrey T. Martin, president and CEO of CCL, said in announcing the move.

With sales of $20.2 billion in 2016, Emerson is a worldwide technology and engineering company. One area of specialization is cold chain management, as Emerson has a strong position in shipping. Adding PakSense, whose state-of-the-art temperature sensors have gained significant interest in recent years, is an ideal fit.

Avery Dennison, another major player in the label field as well as in RFID, invested in PragmatIC, a specialist in intelligent packaging. PragmatIC’s flexible integrated circuits could be a fit for Avery Dennison’s inlays.

Displays are a major opportunity for flexible and printed electronics. The challenge is determining which technology will ultimately become dominant. Samsung is betting on quantum dots (QD), and acquired QD Vision, a QD materials company. QD Vision has reported that it has sold more than one million Color IQ optics in the last three years. 

Most Intriguing Printed Electronics Products of 2016

Flexible and printed electronics manufacturers made further gains in commercialization during 2016. Here is Printed Electronics Now’s list of Most Intriguing Printed Electronics Products of 2016, a look at five technologies that have either reached the market or are nearing commercialization.

In alphabetical order:

• iOlive and Thin Film Electronics – NFC SpeedTap tags
Thin Film Electronics ASA (Thinfilm) recorded a number of commercial successes with its NFC SpeedTap tags during the past year, with one promising project being the use of these tags in the packaging of Italian olive oil brands. This provides product authentication and helps enhance consumer engagement on the iOlive app.

Nanoco Group plc - Deep-Red CFQD Quantum Dot Film
Quantum dots are making significant headway in the area of televisions, but less known is its ability promote plant growth by fine-tuning lighting to the desired color for maximizing chlorophyll absorption. Nanoco earned a CES 2017 Innovation Award for this development.

• OSRAM – OLED Tail Lights
Last year, OSRAM reported that OLED lighting was on the verge of appearing on the road. This promise has been fulfilled, as the BMW M4 GTS and Audi TT RS feature OLED lighting, and OSRAM expects more to follow due to the design opportunities and flexibility that OLEDs offer.

• Samsung – Family Hub refrigerator
Appliances are quickly becoming smarter, as consumers are able to utilize touch screen technology on refrigerators, washers and dryers and more. Honored with a 2016 CES Innovation Award, Samsung’s Family Hub refrigerator comes complete with a 21.5” HD Wifi-enabled touchscreen that can play your favorite songs, serve as a calendar, display photos and recipes, and do much more.

• SVK and Heliatek - HeliaFilm Active Building Facade
SVK and Heliatek were honored in the Best New Product category at the 2016 OE-A competition during LOPEC for its active building façade element using large area HeliaFilm in combination with fiber cement panels, generating electricity efficiently.