Printed Electronics: a "Game Changing" Technology

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Printed Electronics: a “Game Changing” Technology

By Harry Zervos, technology analyst, IDTechEx

Printed electronics are here! We are witnessing the appearance of new products in the marketplace: some with printed components; some currently being manufactured using alternative techniques but with strong potential for large volume manufacturing based on additive processes; and others that are fully printed. All these types of devices are now available, demonstrating the capabilities of the technologies. Multi-disciplinary teams have formed in companies representing different parts of the value chain. These teams are evaluating the products being made in an effort to bring these disruptive technologies into the market place. Vibrant activities are bringing together academic research and companies of all shapes and sizes, developing new form factors for existing products and creating new ones.

IDTechEx expects the Printed Electronics market to grow to more than $50 billion over the next ten years, with Photovoltaics, display technologies and logic (memory and transistors) representing the largest segments. Though printed electronics technology is still in its infancy, it's potential impact could be big, on everything from low-cost solution-processed thin-film photovoltaics and OLED lighting, to e-paper displays and thin film batteries.

The Market for Printed and Potentially Printed Electronics in 2020

Manufacturing Paradigms Collide

Conventional electronics manufacturers are definitely keeping an eye on the developments in printed electronics, making sure that they are up to date with advances in the field. While it might seem strange, given the difference between the capabilities of silicon technologies and lithographic manufacturing techniques, conventional electronics manufacturers are keenly aware that printed electronics advances will soon change their world. Continuous advances in manufacturing technology, printing materials both on ink and substrate level, and the appearance of new products that change the demands from currently adopted technologies keep the field of electronics an ever-changing, ever-evolving one.

When you compare a multi-million dollar lithography machine from a company like ASML to the entire production set-up of companies like Solarmer and Konarka, you see the disparity in cost. But this type of difference could signal a shift from capital-intensive facilities to lower equipment cost manufacturing, with the reduction in costs reflected in the price of the final product. Heliatek, an organic PV start-up in Dresden, is working on deposition of small molecules in vacuum, but Solarmer, Konarka and others are looking into roll-to-roll manufacturing with atmospheric processes and much lower set-up costs. Incidentally, while carrying out development work in cooperation with the Institute of Applied Photophysics (IAPP) at Dresden University, Heliatek set an efficiency record for organic PV cells: with an efficiency of 8.3 percent on an active surface area of 1.1 cm2, measured by Heliatek and independently confirmed by the Fraunhofer ISE CalLab in Freiburg— replacing the previous world record for OPVs which was held by CA start-up Solarmer.

Printed Logic in Mass Markets

Just last week, 3M, the American multinational conglomerate, through its New Ventures business, invested in Printechnologics, a German printed electronics specialist, aimed at joint efforts for providing innovative solutions for electronic circuitry on paper or foil. Printechnologics develops custom alterations to conventional printing methods that are environment friendly, with extremely high scalability and cost advantages to address mass markets. Stefan Gabriel, president of 3M New Ventures, commented: "Printechnologics has developed game changing technology enabling printed circuit structures on paper. We see various innovative application areas that provide significant growth opportunities and access to new markets for 3M."


Applications include smart packaging to prevent counterfeiting and anti-fraud solutions in the gaming market in connection with 3M’s multi-touch displays. In an effort to predict future direction for low-cost electronics integrated into paper products, Printechnologics also sees the potential for them to include electronic data carriers enabling them to store data and communicate with the environment. Following that assumption, the company is connecting print products with online content, exploring the new possibilities that emerge there. Printed logic is still a long way from the capabilities of silicon logic, so its dominion over high-end electronics will remain unshaken for a while still. But new markets are emerging, new products envisioned and made reality, and those will rely on a whole new range of enabling technologies.

OLEDs Driving a Technology Shift

In the field of organic LEDs (OLEDs), Osram and its LED-affiliate Osram Opto Semiconductors are driving the technology shift in the lighting market and are currently building a pilot line for OLEDs in Regensburg, Germany. In the next three years, around euro50 million will be invested in the new pilot production facility and in research on LED applications. Commissioning of the production line is scheduled for mid-2011.

One focus of the research work in Regensburg will be the continued development of the manufacturing processes on the pilot line in preparation for mass OLED production. At the same time, advances in OLED product development in terms of brightness, efficiency and service life can be seamlessly transferred to production technology, thereby achieving long-term reductions in manufacturing costs. The new facility will initially be run with around 200 employees with long-term plans to recruit new employees in line with market developments.


As a reminder, at the end of 2009, Osram became the first company to launch a product for installation in designer luminaires – the beautifully designed, albeit slightly expensive "Orbeos."

The Orbeos from OSRAM. Source: OSRAM

At the same time, novel wrist-mounted phosphorescent OLED displays built on thin flexible metal foil, developed by Universal Display Corporation, are being evaluated by the U.S. Army Communication Electronics Research and Development Engineering Center's (CERDEC). The eight units each contain a 4.3" QVGA full-color, full-motion AMOLED display using amorphous-Silicon (a-Si) TFT backplanes designed and fabricated on thin metallic foil by LG Display. This kind of hybrid approach, bringing together existing infrastructure and novel devices is going to become more and more prominent as intermediate products emerge.

For more information on worldwide developments in the field of flexible electronics, attend IDTechEx’s Printed Electronics/Photovoltaics USA 2010 conference and exhibition in Santa Clara, California, on November 30 to December 2. Companies like LG, 3M, Printechnologics and Konarka will be joined by a multitude of other companies and research institutes, showcasing their latest developments and disruptive technologies. The tradeshow will also feature “Demonstration Street,” a chance for attendees to see/touch/interact with new Printed Electronics products, bringing them from lab to life. For more information, visit:

November 2, 2010