Flexible, Printed Electronics – At the Tipping Point

Flexible, Printed Electronics – At the Tipping Point

By Heidi Hoffman, senior director, FlexTech Alliance

SEMI members are the infrastructure upon which the modern microelectronics (IC) industry is built. Over the past 50 years the IC revolution led to unprecedented growth in information technology and information services. By deploying IC technology in commercial and defense applications, new technologies emerged, employment grew, and wealth creation flourished. Historically, ICs have been fabricated on silicon wafers, while other electronic devices, such as flat panel displays (FPDs), are built on increasingly larger glass substrates. Are stretchable, conformable electronics in the industry’s future? Has this nascent technology reached a tipping point?

As background, flexible electronics are incorporated into textiles, building materials and other surfaces, creating ubiquitous, human-scale environmental intelligence – for example, smart buildings that adjust their own environments for optimal energy consumption or clothing that adapts to the wearer’s needs and which monitors physiology. Printed electronics uses existing graphics publishing industry manufacturing capacity to produce literally square miles of circuitry at high speeds and vastly reduced costs. Electronics can be printed with nearly any method, including screen, offset, gravure, flexo or ink jet printing, with feature sizes in the 10-20 micron range – the same as or better than microprocessors of 20 years ago. Combined together, a new industry emerges: flexible, printed electronics (FPE).

FlexTech article- image 1This vibrant new industry, which combines the breadth of the printing industry with the technical sophistication of smart electronics, provides a compelling, yet unproven, market opportunity. Indeed, industry analysts differ greatly in their estimate of the size of the FPE market. IDTechEx gauges a multi-billion dollar printed electronics (PE) market in 2013 (not all printed and predicated on an emerging OLED display market), while Yole sees PE reaching ~$1 Billion in 2020. A reasonable estimate is from NanoMarkets, which forecasts a $1.15B PE market in 2014 growing to $16.7B in 2019, a CAGR of 58 percent (see adjacent chart).

While disagreeing in market size, all analysts acknowledge that emerging FPE applications are in sensors, power, communications, and lighting. In a recent report IDTechEx wrote that “stretchable electronics, logic and memory, and thin film sensors are much smaller segments but with huge growth potential as they emerge from R&D.”

Hybrid devices, long known and utilized in the IC industry, fall in between “all silicon devices” and fully printed ones, and are natural bridge between the two sectors. At SEMICON West 2013 in San Francisco, companies such as Jabil and MC10 reported on progress in hybrid devices, materials and processing technologies for flexible, conformable electronics. They described near-to-market applications including wearable biomedical sensors and imagers, displays, consumer packaging, and toxic and structural sensors.

FlexTech article - image 2In the same session, American Semiconductor described an exciting new approach with flexible CMOS devices and presented information about the industry’s first flexible high performance logic IC (pictured at right).  

FPE potentially opens the gateway to smart packaging and embedded electronics. Electronic supply chain companies are eagerly testing this with, for example, PET and PEN substrate films from DuPont Teijin Films in Richmond, Virginia. Flexible Willow Glass from Corning’s facility in Harrodsburg, Kentucky is also a contender. Just as the FPD industry adapted IC processing tools for its use, similar conversions are underway in FPE, especially in metrology and inspection. These tools and materials enable new aspects of the flexible signage, lighting, photovoltaic, and displays markets.   

FlexTech article - image 3SEMI members have a special chance to learn more about FPE at the 2014 Flexible Electronics and Displays Conference, scheduled for February 3-6, 2014 in Phoenix, Ariz. Sponsored by FlexTech Alliance, a SEMI partner organization, 2014Flex features 90+ presentations in 21 distinct sessions including displays, sensors, printed devices, manufacturing, inspection, and systems and circuits. End users such as LG Display, Samsung and E Ink will describe new products based on flexible electronics, while established and entrepreneurial equipment and materials companies will present on manufacturing.   

FlexTech is extending discount pricing to SEMI members for both exhibit booths and conference registration. The Flex Conference, now in its 13th year, regularly attract 500+ registrants drawn from company management, business development, R&D, and manufacturing (see chart at right).   

Flexible, printable and stretchable electronics … really? Come see for yourself at the 2014 Flex Conference. For more information, contact FlexTech at 1-408-577-1300 or visit www.flexconference.org


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December 3, 2013