The electronic industry is in the midst of a major paradigm shift: novel form factors are emerging, ranging from the introduction of limited stretchability, through to ultra-elastic and conformable electronics. This transfiguration has been in the making for more than a decade now, but it is only now that it is beginning to make a substantial commercial impact. Indeed a new research report from IDTechEx, Stretchable Electronics 2017-2027, predicts that stretchable electronics will become a $600m market by 2027.
Stretchable electronics: root-and-branch disruption
This shift goes beyond the traditional incremental technology development along well-established industry lines. Instead, it seeks to create new functions, new applications, and new users. As such, this technology frontier currently only has vague figures-of-merit and limited insight on customer needs.
Indeed, many opponents have long argued that this entire class of emerging materials/components is a classic case of technology-push: a solution looking for a problem. This view may have been justified in the early days, but we now see this trend as an essential step towards the inevitable endgame of new electronics: structural electronics.
Structural electronics is a disruptive megatrend that will transform traditional electronics from being components-in-a-box into truly invisible electronics that are part of the structure of the world around us. This is a major long-term shift that will lead to a root-and-branch change of the electronic industry, including its value chain, its materials, and its components.
Technology space stretches from the academic to mature
Stretchable and conformable electronics is giving shape to this megatrend. Indeed, the material and components menu for stretchable electronic is already very extensive: it includes basic and comparatively more mature technologies such as inks, transparent conductive films, and sensors, but also more complex devices such as transistors, batteries, energy harvesters, displays and so on.
Application space stretches from the ultra-niche to high-volume
The contours of the application space are also now emerging. Electronic textile products with conductive inks and polymers have already been commercially launched and a maturing industry will lead to increased volumes with more competitive pricing in the coming years.
In-mold electronics (IME) products are in the final stages of qualification for high-volume whitegoods and automotive applications. Indeed, we expect notable commercial launches for IME products in 2017 after years of on-and-off starts. Here, stretchable conductive inks will be the first to reach the markets but the industry is already expanding its toolkit to include IME-compatible transparent conductive film (carbon nanotubes, metal mesh, PEDOT, silver nanowires, etc.) and sensors/actuators.
Some stretch sensor technologies have been in the semi-commercial mode of years, changing hands multiple times, yet continue to get closer to commercialization. Accumulated industry experience means that suppliers are finding hard-to-identify industrial applications, whilst solving the challenges that hampered success in more visible high-profile applications.
Flexible PCB manufacturers are also busy perfecting their process to create stretchable boards following either the rigid-island-flexible-connector or ultra-thinning approaches. The challenge is to increase throughput without compromising yield or high-temperature compatibility. In the long-term these manufacturers have their sights set on creating an enabling platform, whilst in the short term they are working with partners on applications such as skin patches or fully conformable wearable devices.
This ship is sailing
This emerging technology frontier represents an exciting opportunity for commercial R&D and innovation. The technology readiness is often past academic research but the industry generally remains in a state of flux: the customer needs are poorly known, the figures-of-merits barely established, and no dominant technology yet exists in any space.
This ship is however beginning to sail now. Indeed, we anticipate that in many cases the winners will emerge within the next 3-5 years. This is why companies now need to urgently establish a closer collaboration between their commercial and research units, and should follow a strategy for going shallow but broad, touching upon as many nascent application spaces as their bandwidth allows them to garner feedback, offer customized solutions, and fine-tune their research direction.