Progress in Printing Displays and Transistors, but Real Opportunity to Come from Integration

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Progress in Printing Displays and Transistors, but Real Opportunity to Come from Integration

By Paula Doe, SEMI Emerging Markets

Source: Poly IC

So far it’s mostly the ink makers that are bringing in any significant revenues from printed electronics. But demand for displays for e-readers is taking off, and progress is being made in printing the transistors and integrated systems that will enable more applications of the technology, reported companies at the recent IDTechEx Printed Electronics USA event (December 2-3).

The total rather mixed category of printed and flexible and solution-processed electronics will be about a $720 million market in 2010, according to IDTechEx, $400 million of that for inks, largely used in development, but also more than $100 million in sales of both sensors (primarily glucose test strips), and displays (e-paper and electroluminescent). Going forward, however, the larger opportunities will be large area and flexible photovoltaics and OLED displays and lighting. “The market driver is not cost, but form factor,” argued CEO Raghu Das.

Real Demand for Sturdy, Light-weight e-book Displays

Closer to a real market, and to a real alternative to conventional vacuum-deposited silicon-based technology, are printed or flexible displays, where the exploding demand for e-readers is already the killer application for sturdy, light-weight, low-power displays. The most practical way to make these devices is from flexible substrates, usually requiring at least some low-temperature, solution-processing steps. IDTechEx chairman Peter Harrop noted that the Amazon Kindle shipped 500,000 units its first year, surpassing the iPod’s initial 300,000.

Plastic Logic, Inc.’s e-reader, to be revealed at CES in January, is made with solution processing and direct write processes on low-temperature PET substrates, though it does laminate the PET to more conventional glass substrates to run it through LCD equipment, then removes the glass backing afterwards. Some of the toolset is custom and some modified, but most is off the shelf G3.5 LCD tools, reported Frank Canova, VP of product engineering. The 8.5” x 11” e-paper display will allow touch navigation, annotation and markup, and wireless download, aiming at the business person who has to carry around a lot of office documents.

Coming next to the e-book market is color, said E Ink Corp. VP of marketing Sriram Peruvemba, who says e-book makers like LG and Prime View plan mass production by the end of 2010 of devices with color quality as good or better as that of color advertisements in newspapers. Color, and the possibility for annotation enabled by faster response times for the displays, will make the devices more practical for textbooks. “I personally believe the killer application will be textbooks, especially for the developing world,” said Prevemba.

Kovio and PolyIC Report Progress on Printing Transistors

Printing of transistors has lagged, but both Kovio, Inc. and PolyIC GmbH are now showing prototype products, and are aiming their very different technologies at similar markets for item-level communication, authentication and security. Kovio CEO Amir Mashkoori says his company targets item-level interactivity, aiming at a slice of the $500 billion annual spending on advertising, and the $500 billion annually lost from counterfeiting of brand-name goods. “The value is not just to keep track of stuff, but to interact with the consumer at the point of sale,” he said. “We go in the existing barcode socket, but the idea is to go beyond ID to sensors and displays.”

The initial plan is to print a chip and antenna on a product label that activates from RF power when scanned, to link to more information. The company was demonstrating drug bottles with labels that showed if the product was authentic, noting that in some countries like India and Indonesia, 20%-25% of all pharmaceuticals are counterfeit. It also demonstrated a wine label that, when scanned, cell phone linked to the winery website to give the consumer more information about the wine that might encourage purchase. Kovio is working with Cubic on train tickets, and Toppan Forms, Tadbik Group and Cellotape/Landmark on the other products.

Mashkoori says the company is sampling in large volumes today, and plans to ramp production in 2010 of its transistors of silicon ink printed on metal foil. It’s currently transitioning to a larger substrate for higher throughput and working on the automation to further drive down costs. It has optimized and scaled up its ink production, and will soon announce outsourcing its ink manufacturing to a partner. Some demanding layers are printed with inkjet technology, but most use faster printing methods. “We are taking this thing on a major ride,” he said.

Also making progress on real printing of transistors is PolyIC, which plans release of a development kit for potential users of its printed transistor technology in early 2010. The company brings the graphics printing and electronics together as a joint venture between Siemens and the big printing company Kurz. “We are bringing two worlds together with very different cultures— the world of fast and cheap roll to roll, and the one of precision, high-end machinery,” noted managing director Wolfgang Mildner. “We have to bring these industries together to reach a common understanding of how to use these new materials that are not fit to their machine.”

PolyIC is in first generation roll-to-roll production of its organic circuits on polyester, and targeting similar first markets as Kovio for RF- activated interactivity, for authentication, tickets or vouchers. It’s also in lab-scale production of memory for Thin Film Electronics AB, which is developing electronic collector cards for use with a video game with Disney. Much of the effort of course had been developing much of the infrastructure required to print transistors, including design tools and a high-speed R2R electrical test system for testing devices as they roll by at >30 meters per minute. The company makes its top-gate FET from a four-layer stack on polyester or other polymer substrate, with a bottom silver electrode, a P3AT semiconductor, a polymer blend dielectric, and a top copper electrode. Each layer requires a different printing process, as each has particular issues, ranging from precise registration for the electrodes, to layer thinness for the semiconductor, to getting a homogenous pinhole-free layer for the dielectric. Mildner says the company is doing 15 micron features, and has solved some of the polythylene life issues to get some devices performing in test for years. Of note for materials suppliers: the company is going through 2-5 kilometers of substrate a week even in development, printing 10,000 square meters of circuits a month.

Real Business Now in Printing Simple Sensors, Displays

Making a real business of printing electronics now is GSI Technologies LLC, a graphics screen printer that currently gets some 80% of its approximately $25M annual revenues from functional printing products for customers. CTO Gordon Smith told SEMI that the company is shipping 1 to 1.5 billion printed glucose sensor strips a year, some electroluminescent lamps for automotive and handheld applications, and electrochromic displays, targeted at generating one-time passcodes on smart cards to provide added security for online credit card transactions. The equipment is essentially conventional R2R or sheet-fed graphics printing tools, but with more effective ovens to assure complete drying. Typical feature sizes are about 100 microns, with 8-10 layers with registration down to +/- 25 microns.

But the Real Opportunity is Integration

The printing foundry Sologie is also printing products that are shipping in volumes of tens of thousands or millions. Sologie specializes in putting together available outside core technologies for particular customer projects. VP of sales Mark Litecky reports that the company has designed and printed products ranging from conductive cables without metal that don’t interfere with MRI machines, to RFID inlays for passport cards for frequent border commuters now printing in the hundreds of thousands per week. But additional game-changing applications are in the works— including a consumer electronics product that prints the passive components instead of using surface-mounted devices to reduce component count from hundreds to tens.

IDTechEx’s Harrop argued that printed electronics will only achieve the low cost that is its key advantage over conventional silicon if it can be produced in ultra-high volumes. And these kinds of huge volumes— on the order of tens of billions a year— will only be possible with standard platforms that can leverage those economies of scale for even smaller-volume individual products. The lesson from the silicon industry is that there is little market for individual components, as real applications need integrated systems. So printed electronics will have to print all the components— including sensors, temperature recorders, batteries, displays, timers and transistors— on stacked, interconnected substrates, or better still, all on one substrate. It will also need to design standard, re-usable, modular units for the different functions, and print them all on the same standard hardware platforms, to significantly bring down costs. He noted the example of a package label that includes a timer, now partially printed for about $0.80, but that could be potentially be fully printed for only a few cents in very high volume— and leading hair dye brands are interested in buying billions a year if the cost were less than $0.10.

Opportunity Demands Thinking “Outside the Box”

But there’s also a need for more creative design. “There’s been a big supplier push,” said Harrop. “Great things are being developed, but often with no idea of what they’re good for. We have an enormous tsunami of invention, but very few integrators or designers. We need more thinking outside the box—not a better TV, but something entirely new.” He noted that major companies, including the six major consumer goods companies have teams to develop printed electronics features to protect their brands or make their products stand out, with smart packaging or advertising of various sorts, like logos that wink or billboards that move.

Kenneth McGuire, principal scientist at Procter & Gamble (P&G), said he was looking for suppliers to propose ways to distinguish P&G brands with printed electronics. But he also noted that any product had to be able to ship in the billions of units, and had to cost only pennies. “We expect all products to do at least $100M a year in sales,” he noted. “Tide ships a million units a day. Its label costs about $0.01, and the total packaging costs is only about $0.25, so we can’t use a $0.15 light.” That prompted some skeptical buzz among attendees that it seemed unrealistic for the process technology suppliers to come up with the home-run consumer marketing idea for the leading consumer goods companies, or for any new technology to enter the market at such high volumes and low costs.

For more information on Printed Electronics, please visit the SEMI Emerging Technology website at or visit

January 5, 2010