What does 2023 hold for printed/flexible electronics?
With applications ranging from energy harvesting to sensing, and potential for application in sectors as diverse as healthcare and automotive, printed/flexible electronics is set to change our expectations of what electronics can provide and where they can be used. This is not just a technology of the future: printed/flexible/hybrid electronics are already used in a wide range of sensors, illuminators, photovoltaics, and other components commercially available today. However, there is ample room for growth as the underlying technology is adopted for new use cases.
A roadmap of selected emerging printed/flexible electronics technologies. Source: IDTechEx
One of the most exciting aspects of printed/flexible electronics is how low-cost, lightweight, flexible form factor and compatibility with digital manufacturing can facilitate new experiences, products, and even business models. The lower cost, compared to conventional circuit boards, facilitated by cheaper material inputs and high-throughput continuous manufacturing, will enable electronics to become increasingly ubiquitous in applications such as smart packaging and smart buildings. The light weight and flexible form factor also makes printable/flexible electronics ideally suited for digital healthcare data acquisition, making car interiors ready for autonomous vehicles, and data acquisition from industrial environments.
Societies around the world face a major challenge in meeting the healthcare needs of an aging population. Meeting this demand in a cost-effective manner would almost certainly require increased digitization via, for example, remote patient monitoring and automated diagnostics.
Electronic skin patches based on printed/flexible electronics are likely to be a component of this emerging healthcare digital landscape. By continuously tracking vital vital parameters such as heart rate, movement, and temperature, patients can be released early from the hospital. Moreover, patches can facilitate decentralized clinical trials. This would reduce costs and provide more representative results as the subject can continue with daily activities.
Interest in electronic skin patches has continued to grow throughout 2022, with contract manufacturers like ScreenTec and Quad Industries reporting full order books and expansion plans. In 2023, expect to see more pilot projects using electronic skin patches for continuous monitoring, including decentralized clinical trials. These will build on the experience gained when skin patches were used to monitor the respiratory tract during the COVID-19 pandemic but will be applied to a much wider range of conditions. There will also be continued improvements in the capabilities of skin patches in terms of flexibility, comfort, and accuracy of recorded biometric data.
Updating car interiors
With the increasing autonomy of vehicles, the interior design rather than the driving experience becomes the main source of differentiation between the models and thus becomes the main focus of innovation by the manufacturers. This transition creates vast opportunities for printed/flexible electronics, which can take advantage of their lighter weight and compatibility to produce thin film heaters, flexible backlights, and capacitive touch surfaces. Indeed, back-illuminated capacitive touch sensors comprising transparent printed metal mesh films and thermoformed parts developed by PolyIC are now being used in commercially available composites of multiple brands.
Transparent antennas are another emerging automotive application that is suitable for printed/flexible electronic devices. One use case is radar. Transparency allows for increased radar area and accuracy without hindering aesthetic (or cooling) requirements as it can be placed on the bodywork. Another case for the use of cars is the improvement of connectivity to the telecom infrastructure. This is vital to the “connected car” concept, as cars always have excellent internet connectivity for both passengers and vehicle systems. This is already being explored by car manufacturers such as Nissan and telecom providers such as NTT Docomo. The clear antennas can be mounted high up on the windows to facilitate line of sight without restricting the vehicle’s design.
We expect to see in 2023 the first commercial automotive version of in-mold electronics, where electronics are printed and mounted on a flat substrate that is subsequently thermoformed and injection molded. The increasing use of capacitive touch sensors, often integrated into the curved surfaces of aesthetically appealing materials, is a car interior trend that will continue. In addition, printed/flexible electronics will be increasingly used to add heating and lighting to surfaces throughout the interior to create a more convincing vacant environment while improving energy efficiency and reducing weight.
Industry 4.0 pillar
Industry 4.0 promises fundamental improvements in manufacturing productivity. Increasing digitization and the adoption of machine learning, artificial intelligence and wireless connectivity enable continuous monitoring of multiple production aspects and corresponding optimization processes. Sensors are increasingly being adopted within factories to provide data for these analysis algorithms. These are used not only to monitor the product being produced but to track the performance of machines and keep track of inventory and other assets. In some cases, the ultimate ambition is to produce a digital twin, where the status and location of each asset in the plant is tracked in real time. For example, at the FLEX2022 conference, Boeing outlined its aspiration to use flexible hybrid electronic circuits with sensing and communication capability in all of its plants.
Enabling predictive maintenance is a key driver of Industry 4.0, as it can reduce costly production line downtime. Vibration and temperature sensors can be integrated or modified into mechanical equipment so that any changes outside of agreed parameters can be identified and resolved during routine maintenance. Onboard sensors can also be used to ensure that essential components are installed correctly to prevent costly subsequent breakdowns. For example, TT Gaskets is developing gaskets with built-in pressure sensors that can be read using an RFID scanner to ensure they are installed correctly.
Inventory tracking, even for small, frequently used items, enables automatic reordering. One example comes from Trelleborg in collaboration with InnovationLab. A printed pressure-resistant sensor is placed at the base of the parts boxes, with rearrangement when the parts weight reaches a certain limit. Printed electronics are ideal for such systems as large area sensors can be produced at low cost.
In 2023, expect to see more pilot projects that use hybrid, flexible electronics to enable asset tracking and predictive maintenance throughout the industrial environment. Leak sensing using low-cost capacitive sensors, such as those developed at an early stage by the British company Laiier, will gain traction across a wide range of commercial environments. 3D electronics will also be used increasingly to enable sensors to be retrofitted onto existing production infrastructure. This is due to the cost effective ability to produce custom parts.
Printed/Flexible Electronics Technologies website. Source: IDTechEx
The commercialization of printed/flexible electronics is expected to continue in 2023 across all of the technologies and applications described above. While there remains significant opportunity for device development, particularly in terms of robustness, throughput, and connections between flexible and conventional/rigid electronics, many remaining challenges are commercial. This is particularly true as print/flexible electronics facilitate new business models that require fundamental changes in embedded business practices. For example, continuous health monitoring or a massive redesign of existing products, such as moving from patch cords to printed ones. Increasingly, providers of printed/flexible electronic devices are creating industry partners to overcome these barriers and facilitate their adoption in new applications.
All of these reports cover the current status and expected future developments in both technical capabilities and commercial adoption. Accurate forecasts broken down by technology and application help plan future projects, while multiple company profiles based on initial interviews provide detailed insight into key players. The reports also included multiple application examples, a SWOT analysis, and technology/business readiness assessments.
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