Stretchable Electronics: enabling the future of electronics
Materials, components, products - IDTechEx report provides a 10-year market outlook
The electronic industry is in the midst of a major paradigm shift: novel form factors are emerging ranging from limited flexibility to ultra-elastic and conformable electronics, according to a recent report from IDTechEx.
This transfiguration has been in the making for more than a decade now, but is only now beginning to make a substantial commercial impact. This is not an incremental shift 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.
Many opponents have long argued that this entire class of emerging materials/devices 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.
This is a disruptive megatrend that will transform traditional electronics from being components-in-a-box into truly invisible electronics that are structurally integrated where needed. This is a major long-term theme that will lead to a root-and-branch change in the electronics industry including materials, components and the entire value chain. Stretchable and conformable electronics is giving shape to this megatrend. Indeed, it enables it.
Out of the lab and into the market
Stretchable Electronics is an umbrella term that conceals great diversity. It refers to a whole host of emerging electronic materials, components and devices that exhibit some degree of mechanical strain tolerance or “stretchability”. These include interconnects, sensors, actuators, functional films, batteries, logic, displays, etc. each of which is covered in detail within the report. Therefore, the overall term covers technology options which span the entire technology readiness scale. Some stretchable electronic components are already entering various markets, whereas others remain at early proof-of concept stages. Whilst the overall theme remains, IDTechEx expects that the individual stories within the sector will fragment, with some becoming commercially successful and others remaining largely academic curiosities.
This ship is 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 of touching upon as many nascent application spaces as their bandwidth allows to garner feedback, offer customized solutions, and fine-tune their research direction. In this report we provide a critical assessment of all the existing and emerging technologies.
No longer just a solution looking for a problem
Structural electronics is no longer just a solution looking for a problem. Indeed, it is finding commercial use in both niche applications in hard-to-find sectors as well as in high-volume visible products. It delivers strong value in multiple applications, at times as an enabling technology, whilst it remains an unessential or underperforming solution amongst many in others. The application space therefore also cannot be painted with a broad brush as it is diverse and fragmented. The success will be in the detail.