Electronic Products & Technology

Will the future of electronics be printed?

By Sylvain Charbonneau, National Research Council Canada   

Printable Electronics Electronics

Printable Electronics (PE) is the manufacture of electronic circuits using conventional printing approaches, and is rooted in the marriage of new materials and cost-effective, large-area printing processes.

Thin, light weight, flexible and low-cost – that’s what PE means. PE as an emerging field is great for Canada because it lies at the intersection of two well-established Canadian industries: ICT and printing. The technology enables lower cost manufacturing of electronic devices that will transform industries and markets.

How big is PE? BIG. The global PE market, valued at US$2B in 2010, is forecast to grow to $55.1B by 2020 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 40%. IDTechEx has estimated that the market value will likely reach $340B by 2030! To be clear, this long-term forecast of $340B is comparable to the magnitude of the silicon CMOS-based semiconductor market of 2009. Analysts expect that logic and memory devices will be a key driver, along with displays and photovoltaics (PV).

Since there is gold in them there hills, the investment in PE has already started. In the European Union, with the support of taxpayers through the Framework Program, leading industrial organizations such as BASF, DeLaRue and Stora Enso, and Research and Technology Organizations such as VTT, Holst Center, and Fraunhofer are leading the way with innovations in materials, printing equipment and processes. They are targeting markets such as lighting, displays and photovoltaics – areas different from, though complementary to, National Research Council’s (NRC) activity focus on packaging and commercial/security printing, of which more later.


“Virtually all things, all processes

and all ways of working are becoming intelligent”

We live now with interconnected technologies that are changing the way the world works. PE is an opportunity to think and act in new ways – economically, socially and technically. Virtually all things, all processes and all ways of working are becoming intelligent.

PE technology presents a transformative opportunity to add intelligence to printed products, allowing everyday objects to interact with customers in ways undreamt of five years ago. The fusion of ICT technologies and printing will lead to a revolution in the manufacturing of high-volume, interactive consumer products and security documents.

Traditional Silicon micro-electronics processes have been successfully scaled to manufacture billions of objects per year, but tagging the estimated ten trillion retail items produced every year will require an entirely new fabrication paradigm which only PE can provide. PE will serve to unleash innovation in the Canadian Digital Economy by bringing new ICT solutions and competitiveness to the manufacturing sector, enabling the Internet of things.

PE will not compete with silicon microelectronics but rather will complement it. PE technology will overcome Si-technology in functionally sparse & area constraint-type applications (e.g., low frequency NFC/RFID where the tags areas are mostly defined by passive elements).

Confirmation of PE’s innovative impact comes from discussions and consultation over the last year with Canadian industrial players who have indicated a strong drive to participate, excited as they are by the possibilities of PE’s new product paradigms:

* Flexible, thin, lightweight: printable, cuttable, conformal – example, Building Integrated Photo Voltaics

* Large area: lighting wall paper, extremely large displays

* Low cost: printed NFC/RFID, embedded into everyday products such as smart packaging

* Non-toxic: recyclable – even compostable, bio-compatible – from wearable to implantable/ingestible

Tangible examples that demonstrate the promise of PE include:

* Smart drug packages

* Interactive packaging

* RFID-enabled boxes

* Next-generation banknote security

* ePassport

* Smart point of sale displays

These applications are specific to the markets we have identified in the smart packaging, commercial & security printing as we will see later.

The opportunity right now is to position Canadian industry as early adopters of PE solutions to make them global leaders in sub-segments of the addressable PE market:

• logic and memory

• conductors

• photovoltaics

• simple displays

At the National Research Council we and our partners in PE are focusing on the niches in which Canadian industry already has great strength, and complementing rather than competing with the developments in Europe and Asia.

NRC focuses on integrated, multifunctional PE devices, including elements for computing and communication (NFC/RFID). In addition to the huge addressable market being targeted by this investment, the most compelling factors which have contributed to this selection include the willingness of industry surveyed to support the research area financially, the timeliness of the investment and the critical mass which could be attained amongst the collaborators within the supply chain leading to the deployment of developed solutions.

“Current technology readiness levels present NRC with an opportunity”

Unresolved issues remain with respect to the scalability and cost of materials, the consistency of the processes (resolution/registration) and the reliability of the components and integrated devices fabricated via roll-to-roll methods. In fact, components such as transistors, diodes and memory have yet to be integrated into a package in which the individual elements are optimally matched. As such, current technology readiness levels present NRC with an opportunity to leverage and couple its expertise in materials and device fabrication to make a significant impact in the PE market.

The total addressable market comprises portions of the following sub-segments of the PE market: logic and memory (the fastest growing of all major PE sub-segments, 95% of which is for RFID/NFC), conductors, batteries and photovoltaics (as a power source for integrated PE devices) and displays (simple displays for interactive packaging and point-of-sale smart labels). This total worldwide addressable sub-market is estimated to reach $12.1B by 2020 (out of $55.1B) and $119.1B by 2030 (out of $340B).

Printable Electronics Target Markets

PE solutions connecting 4 industrial sub-sectors (see chart):

• Packaging

• Security printing

• Marketing

• Health care

Consultations to date, both direct (with 45 companies) and indirect through outside consultants, have enabled NRC to focus on the applications shown here. All applications relevant for the Canadian industry revolve around the long term goal of fully printed RFID/NFC tags, which enables new products in: (1) packaging, (2) security printing and (3) commercial printing.

“All applications relevant for the Canadian industry revolve around

the long term goal of fully printed RFID/NFC tags”

This space is rich with potential applications of PE technologies. Packaging applications deal with logistics and inventory management with RFID, and extend towards brand authentication and interactive packaging. Security printing involves payment (banknotes and NFC-enabled mobile payment
), identification documents and lottery tickets, and also overlaps with marketing with loyalty card, gift cards and coupons. Finally, traditional commercial printing is ripe with application scenarios for PE, be it in advertisement such as flyers and posters, or in interactive newsprint.

These applications feature a one-way or two-way interaction between the object and its user. While some of these applications can be created with relatively simple PE technologies, the ultimate common goal is the creation of entirely printed RF activated devices conforming to the Near Field Communication or Radio Frequency Identification Device standards.

The PE industrial value chain of the markets being addressed consists of three essential segments: production of materials, design and fabrication of devices based on these materials, and products in the packaging, commercial printing and security printing sectors which incorporate these devices. The end-users provide the pull, demanding low-cost, flexible designs that can be delivered quickly while providing a customer experience either unheard of or impossible to realize using traditional silicon electronics.

The NRC PE Vision is to kick-start the Canadian PE ecosystem (materials-to-products – see chart)

• Engage end-user industry

• Support development of supply chain

• Reduce industry’s barrier to entry

Materials production > Device design and fabrication > Products

In support of this vision and playing to NRC’s strengths, NRC PE efforts are concentrated in three Technical Thrusts, aimed at advancing the Technology Readiness Level of key elements to meet end user requirements:

1. Functional materials – semi-conducting ink, transistor package (electrode and dielectric)

2. Functional printed components & integration – RFID/NFC tags

3. Functional Imprinting – security & emerging markets

This requires advances in various individual components: from simple conductors (for antennas) to logic & memory and interactive components (basic keyboard, basic display, etc.). Under each of these technical thrusts, industrially supported (in-kind) and sponsored (cash) projects will deliver solutions for commercialization of the technology.

We have had successes already in a PE effort which, while building on NRC strengths of many years’ standing, dates only from 2012. The power of PE is changing the way we live, work, and play. Who knows what great idea is next?


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