Trends to Watch in 2009: Printed Electronics Will Show if it Can Deliver the Goods


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Trends to Watch in 2009: Printed Electronics Will Show if it Can Deliver the Goods

Next year may be the year we find out just how hard it will turn out to be to scale commercial production of printed electronics technology, as high profile players like Kovio and Plastic Logic say they plan to start shipping product with solution processed transistors in the second half of 2009. There is already a $1.9 billion market in electronics based on unconventional solution processes, organic materials or flexible substrates, according to market researcher IDTechEx, though essentially none of that is actually yet from printed transistors.

 

Plastic Logic showed off one of the first samples of its e-reader with the plastic backplane off its newly opened Dresden line at the recent Printed Electronics USA event in San Jose, CA. The display looked very readable, and was beautifully svelt, at <7mm thick and <16oz weight, though there was some concern in the audience about apparent defects and the apparently somewhat limited flexibility from the more conventional third-party electronics. Marketing VP Joe Eschbach said production costs should be about 40%-50% that of an LCD, thanks to the low capital cost for the factory without clean room or vacuum equipment, and a continuous low temperature process instead of batch processing that takes hours instead of weeks to turn out a display. “The existing industry didn’t see this coming, and thinks it’s scum it doesn’t have to worry about, but [printed electronics] is happening, and it will come to do memory and logic at drastically reduced cost,” asserted Eschbach.

The process uses novel polymer semiconductors and dielectrics that can be processed from solution, in air, and at room temperature on 3’ x 3’ plastic substrates, but relies on standard LCD lithography and etch equipment for the finest patterning, IC equipment for area coating and metallization, and graphics industry tools for direct write printing. The mobility of the polymer semiconductor (reported in July as .02cm2/Vs) and on/off ratio (105) remain quite low, but are quite good enough to switch the E-Ink electrophoretic bistable frontplane to a new page when needed. The company is now producing for technical validation, with first product shipments targeted for 2Q09, said Eschbach. The initial product is aimed at business users, so will have wireless internet capability to download documents, and battery life in weeks.

Kovio CEO Amir Mashkoori reported his company plans to start production next year of its first ultra low-cost, item-level identification labels, using transistors printed with silicon ink on stainless steel foil with standard graphics printing equipment. The company is currently shipping alpha samples to Toppan Printing and to a transportation ticket supplier, aiming at beta samples by 1Q09 and production in 2H 09. (Kovio has done development work with public transit card supplier Cubic Transportation Systems.)

Mashkoori said mobilities of its silicon ink are getting up to close to 100cm2/Vs, and are approaching levels of 300 in the lab, compared to levels typically <1 for semiconductive polymers and _400 for conventional silicon. One of the real advantages of the printing approach is the faster development cycles it allows, he noted, “What we’ve done would have taken ten years in [conventional] silicon.”

Kovio aims to target this mid-level performance at the market for tagging items with more information than a barcode, but less than the typical chip-based RFID, though with the mobilities required to work with existing high frequency RFID standards, and at costs down to $.01 to $.03. It figures that at $.03 or less per tag, the demand for item-level tracking will reach 194 billion units by 2015, worth some $5.3 billion.

The total printed electronics market will reach some $560 million in 2009, says IDTechEx, some 29% of the $1.95 billion overall market for unconventional electronics based solution-processing, organic materials, or flexible substrates. And a fat 40% of that total sale will go to materials suppliers, as new specialty materials are the enablers for many of these developments. Small OLED displays, made by vacuum deposition of organic materials on glass, account for almost half of the total, at some $850 million. Photovoltaics will come to another $550M, including organics and vacuum deposition of inorganics on flexible foil. Electronic inks should see $240 million in sales, sensors (primarily glucose sensors) $150 million, and e-paper $75 million. Transistors remained a minimal $10 million market in 2008, still mainly research samples, said IDTechEx CEO Raghu Das. He projected a $14 billion total market for printed and potentially printed products by 2014.

Clearly there is increasing interest in the technology from a wider range of potential users. Among the 700 folks who showed up at the IDTechEx conference, up some 30% from last year, were representatives from a surprising range of companies, including everything from big automotive suppliers and disk drive makers considering new options for making components, to forest products and paper companies looking at printing smart labels for their cartons. Das noted a 50% jump in organizations working on the technology over the last two years, to some 2250 worldwide.

Among those most interested in the currently available technology for printing simple silver circuit patterns and electroluminescent lights on paper were numerous advertising and design folks, doubtless spurred partly by the success of the flashing display on the October cover of Esquire. The electrophoretic E-ink display blinked “Welcome to the 21st Century” on the front, and portrayed a moving car in a Ford ad inside the cover, creating considerable buzz for the issue, which sold the most ad pages in more than a decade.

It also created some impressive publicity for the toughness of the printed E-ink displays, as hackers took the cover apart and displayed the results on YouTube. Turns out the display keeps right on blinking through being folded, sliced, stabbed, drilled, submerged in water and set on fire. Zapping in a microwave does, however, eventually fry the electrical connections.

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