Omnipresent printed electronics

From niche to mass market in a few years

By Claire Marchand

A decade ago, printed electronics was still very much a budding technology destined to a niche market. The emergence and rapid growth of connected devices such as smartphones, tablets and wearables have boosted the internet of things (IoT) and offered new avenues of development to the printed electronics sector.

flexible solar PV on roof tiles Thin-film solar can be used on a wide variety of surfaces, such as roof tiles, that need not be flat (Photo: US Tile)

Printed electronics, a set of printing methods used to create electronic devices on various substrates, is one of the fastest growing technologies today. And the market will continue to grow in good part thanks to “the internet of things which is expanding and requires low-cost, lightweight technology that can sense, store information securely and transmit data” says Jennifer Ernst, Chief Strategy Officer at Thin Film Electronics. According to Gartner, Inc., a technology research and advisory company, nearly 20,8 billion devices will be on the internet of things by 2020. 

Printed electronics is already widely used in radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on product packaging to protect against shoplifting, to help managing stocks or to identify items during transport. They are also used in the production of flexible electronic circuits which are widespread in products where space constraints are significant, such as in small consumer electronics devices, e.g. digital cameras, mobile phones, or wearable smart devices (see article Tags, RFID and the internet of things in this issue). 

New printed electronics applications are emerging, opening up possibilities not envisaged before. The healthcare sector, for instance, is already benefitting from the technology, as researchers develop new, smaller wearables and skin patches, nanobots that can perform internal surgery or sensors that can be sutured into tissues to gather diagnostic data wirelessly in real time (see article Wear your health on your sleeve in this issue).

Biometric authentication increasingly relies on printed electronics to develop devices that scan and identify faces, retinas or fingerprints.

 The solar industry is also benefiting greatly from developments in printed electronics as it moves into new thin-film technology (see article Supporting technologies for photovoltaics in e-tech issue 08/2016). 

The IEC has been very active in that field in recent years. In addition to IEC Technical Committee (TC) 119: Printed electronics, several IEC TCs develop International Standards pertaining to printed electronics applications.

Gallery
temperature-measuring ultrathin skin patch This ultrathin device for mapping changes in skin temperature to 0,02°C is shown with a representative color map of temperature distribution on the wrist (Photo: University of Illinois and Beckman Institute)
smart RFID tag Smart labels could be used to track items from production till consumption, providing detailed information on the product’s freshness, origin, or preparation instructions (Photo: imec)
flexible solar PV on roof tiles Thin-film solar can be used on a wide variety of surfaces, such as roof tiles, that need not be flat (Photo: US Tile)
Claire Marchand, Managing Editor e-tech Claire Marchand, Managing Editor e-tech