The next big wave in the electronics industry


Printed and organic electronics are offering exciting new business opportunities to the traditional electronics manufacturing industry as well as to many specialised startups. We take a look at how conventional electronics will combine with printed electronics and how this young industry is preparing for rapid growth.

Printed and organic electronics is an emerging technology, which is quickly moving from laboratories and research organisations to industrial players. The market for printed and organic electronics is expected to exceed US%2444 Billion in 2021, according to market analysts IDTechEx, while the market for printed electronics in 2011 is estimated to be US$ 2.2 Billion.

The industry gets organised

This growing activity is reflected by the increasing attendance at specific trade exhibitions in Europe and in the US. Organisations such as the Organic Electronics Association (OE-A) attract more and more companies and R&D organisations. OE-A was created at the end of 2004 from the German Engineering Federation VDMA Productronics focusing on the electronics process chain and already has more than 180 members. SEMI, the global industry association serving the manufacturing supply chain for the micro- and nano-electronics industries, is also including printed electronics companies in its association. In France, a new association called AFELIM (Association Française de l'Electronique Imprimée) was created last July for technology education, promotion and networking among industrial professionals (materials, equipment, devices and integrators).

Key functionalities and products based on printed and organic electronics have already been identified, such as OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) displays, Organic Photovoltaics (OPV) and E-Paper displays. Massive investments in OLED displays for mobile terminals and TVs were announced by electronics giants Samsung and LG Displays.

Collaboration between the traditional and printed electronics industries

Printed electronics offers traditional electronics companies (active in the fields of integrated circuits and semiconductors, printed boards, assembly & inspection, manufacturing equipment, connectors, etc) opportunities for collaboration and business development with the new players of this young industry, often start-ups spun off from prestigious research labs.

Printed electronics will often be combined with silicon integrated circuits. In fact, printed electronics offers specific features that silicon technologies cannot provide such large area, flexibility, transparency whereas silicon is still, and will be for a long time, the technology of choice for linear analog signal processing, fast digital signal processing and data communication. For instance, printed electronics products such as AMOLED (Active Matrix OLED) displays require specific silicon ICs (drivers) for multiplexing signals of the pixel matrix, while Organic Image Sensors require silicon ICs for analog signal amplification and analog-to-digital conversion.

Printed electronics products will also drive developments of new assembly and interconnection solutions that are flexible, have a thin profile and can be processed at low temperatures, as most printed electronics products are based on plastic substrates. The assembly industry can find interesting opportunities for innovation here in terms of materials (low temperature processing) and equipment (large area products). Printed electronics will also need new solutions for inspection of large area surfaces and control of uniformity of ultra thin organic layers (down to a few tens of nanometers). Other needs will include CAD solutions and software for modelling and simulation of new materials and devices.

The issue of standards for the printed electronics industry will also have to be addressed, as conventional methods used by the semiconductor industry (such as accelerated stress tests at elevated temperatures for life cycle modelling) cannot be applied to plastic-based products. The driving applications for this standardisation are OLED displays for consumer electronics and Organic Photovoltaics. Materials and equipment suppliers to the conventional electronics industry are attracted more and more by the business development opportunities offered by printed electronics.

There is a lot of activity for instance on copper material for the conductive tracks of printed electronics for cost benefits that could be achieved. Graphene is also considered with interest by the printed electronics industry as a substitute for ITO in transparent electrodes. New materials for photolithography and new thin film deposition and patterning equipment are required for printed electronics in order to reduce costs and improve resolution of pixels of image sensors. Cost reduction is also the reason why big consumer electronics companies are looking to move from vacuum deposition processes to print processes for their new generation OLED-based products.

New product possibilities

Innovative products and new business opportunities can also be considered for printed electronics, as the technology addresses industries which so far have used little or no electronics (such as the plastics and glass industries) and offers breakthrough mechanical integration possibilities.

An example is the Magic Pad concept developed by Isorg, a start-up based in Grenoble. Isorg is a pioneer in developing organic photodetectors and large area image sensors, transforming glass and plastic into smart surfaces. The company is addressing the promising market of printed sensors, estimated to reach around US$2.8 Billion in 2021 by market analysts IDTechEx. Isorg considered from the very beginning the combination of technology, product design and functionality in order to develop the concept of an interactive multimedia tablet. Compared to traditional touch screens and tactile surfaces, integration of photo-detectors introduces the new and exciting possibility of 3D interaction: optical sensors placed all around the surface are able to detect the exact position and movement of a hand above the surface (typically 10 to 20cm). Users can thus interact withoutcontact with a device using three dimensions, in order to control, for example, music file browsing, music volume, and 3D graphics. The concept was jointly developed by Isorg (who developed the technology and associated electronics) and Innosens, an industrial design company based in Grenoble. Innosens worked on several product concepts for the tablet (form factors, plastic materials, graphics). Collaborations have been initiated to explore possible applications of interactive surfaces and 3D user interfaces for toys, home appliances, new generation remote controls for TVs, and other consumer electronics products. Studies will be undertaken with a team of fifteen designers of ENSCI, the most prestigious industrial design and engineering school in France to explore new product concepts for the industrial, packaging and automotive markets.

New business models

A new business approach is essential for players in the printed electronics industry such as Isorg, because most of the products to be developed do not replace existing products based on conventional electronics, but instead are entirely new. These new business models are driven by new applications and product functionalities that numerous industries that do not have knowledge of electronics technologies, such as the consumer goods packaging industry, are looking for.

This is a very different way to market high technology compared to how it has been done for many years by the conventional electronics industry, basically pushing forward performance (processing speed, size of display, size of memory, etc).

Isorg is attracting significant interest from the plastic and glass industries, with a vision to transform plastic and glass into smart surfaces able to detect motion, recognize shapes and objects, measure light and colours, monitors fluids, etc. Future developments include sensors for interactive printed media and posters for the food and drink industry. These would enable posters to detect people moving around the advertising and trigger actions such as poster illumination or sounds.

Isorg sees printed electronics as the next big wave in the electronics industry, serving new markets such as environment, energy, smart metering, health, and smart buildings, and opening doors for exciting collaborations between innovative conventional electronics companies and new players specialised in printed electronics.

September magazine