Flexible electronics is at the tipping point of widespread market appeal and will increasingly be found in a range of ‘smart’ products, according to industry experts and market analysts who addressed the 13th Annual Flexible and Printed Electronics & Exhibition in Phoenix AZ, recently.
The event attracted strong attendance and featured advancements in the field of flexible, printed electronics and displays. Experts noted the excitement surrounding ‘wearable electronics’ as a primary reason for optimism. Anwar Mohammed of Flextronics explained the market opportunity for wearables, as well as the manufacturing challenges. John Batey, who chairs a FlexTech User Group Committee, discussed the results of a survey of potential end users of flexible electronics. According to Batey, 56% of respondents indicated some level of future purchases of wearable and disposable electronics within one to three years with 28% expecting volumes in excess of 100,00 units annually.
Market leaders Corning Glass and E Ink opened the conference with contrasting presentations revealing the industry’s growing depth. Cynthia Giroux, Corning’s Division vice president and research director for Optics and Surface Technologies, described the ability of flexible Willow Glass to process displays, sensors and other electronic components in a very economical roll-to-roll format. Corning is a veteran among the U.S. manufacturing companies. E Ink, a relative newcomer, produces materials used in e-readers and other digital products made and distributed by Amazon, among other retailers. Michael McCreary, Sr. VP and deputy CTO, outlined key personnel ingredients needed for a successful company start-up, which are technical strength, business acumen, and fundraising experience. He noted that applications for electronic ink, a key material in flexible electronics, will move beyond e-readers into watches, signage and other growth markets.
Mike Hack of Universal Display Corp. championed flexible OLED technology resulting in displays in portable devices, such as smart phones. Three requirements are in reach to accelerate market adoption: a thin film transistor backplane (TFT) equivalent to the glass display industry, encapsulation solutions to protect sensitive electronic components, and manufacturing methods comparable to existing fabrication facilities. IHS analyst Sweta Dash reinforced the prediction of substantial OLED market penetration, forecasting a $10B flexible displays market in 2019 and a 144% CAGR in flexible displays from 2015 – 2020.
Manufacturing themes dominated throughout the plenary presentations. Thomas Kurfess of Georgia Tech, and formerly on the staff of the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy, explained the background to the Obama Administration’s Advance Manufacturing Program and its National Network of Manufacturing Innovation Centers. Davor Sujita, CEO of Thin Film Electronics, provided data and motivations for why silicon electron the cost and scalability barriers with conventional electronics. Progress achieved in launching of FlexTech’s Nano-Bio Manufacturing Consortium was reported. This is an Air Force Research Laboratory-supported program to develop novel physiological monitoring devices.