The New Hybrid World: Vision And Reality

We need a cohesive manufacturing infrastructure to realize our technological potential.

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SAN FRANCISCO—You know the famous scene from the movie “The Graduate,” in which a young Dustin Hoffman is offered investment advice by a businessman.

“I want to say just one word to you…just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.”

Today, Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock might hear two words: “Integrated objects.”

At least that’s how Ross Bringans from PARC sees the world. For Bringans, who presented July 8 at a Gartner symposium during Semicon West event here, the future is all about integrated objects, where flexible electronics, standard semiconductors, printed electronics, standard assembly and additive manufacturing combine to create a brave new electronics world.

“Printed and flexible electronics have great promise for many applications,” Bringans told a group of about 200 semiconductor-equipment and semiconductor industry executives (July 8).

It’s a world that has dollar signs dancing in many eyes. A forecast from IDTechEx sees a $9.4 billion printed and thin-film electronics market currently, growing to $63 billion in 10 years, according to Bringans. The forecast for thin-film electronic tags boils up to $20 billion to $25 billion in the coming years, according to Thin-film Electronics ASA.

On being flexible
Bringans sees new applications that need flexibility and existing ones that can benefit from it. These include displays, photovoltaics, imaging and medical devices, and systems on foil.

Some existing technologies such as RFID, smart labels, smart phones and lights will benefit from flexible designs.

Printed electronics has its allure as well, according to Bringans, where the technology will play well with medical devices, the Internet of Things, sensor tags, consumer goods and many other applications.

The upside to printed electronics is that the technology is thin, doesn’t require a lot of material, conforms and folds and features very low manufacturing costs.
The downside? Low switching times and integration densities and large area sizes.

Timing is everything
The other downside is that the technology isn’t quite ready for prime time.

To date, partially printed systems are in use already and conductive traces are being deployed on a large scale, Bringans said. Smart tags and intelligent packing packaging are coming in the near term, and integrated devices are always off in the future, he added.

As for printed conductors, they’re already here. These include RFID antenna, membranes switches for keypads, touchpads and automotive mirror defrosters.

In addition researchers are looking at low-temperature inks and high-temperature papers as part of new directions and how to print structures on 3-D structures.

Addressing trauma
But the really intriguing emerging trend is coming in smart tags, which already are being prototyped. In fact, PARC worked with DARPA on a smart-tag design to monitor head trauma among soldiers. Scientists recently have begun to understand that the cumulative effect of small collisions or bumps to the head can be as pernicious over time as a single violent event.

The PARC-DARPA device can be taped to a soldier’s helmet. It would monitor pressure acceleration, sound and light. Captured signals would be processed and sent into non-volatile memory where they would be held for one week. An off-board readout system would take the data into a larger computerized analysis environment.

Vision vs. reality
The big question researchers are confronting today is how to optimize manufacturability of these new devices. Printed circuits take an area penalty because redundancy needs to be built in to address issues such as only-short or only-open failures or both short and open failures. In some cases these contemporary specialized printing processes can quadruple the size of the device because of these redundancy tradeoffs, Bringans said.

But these challenges seem to daunt no one. In a collaboration among Optomec, Stratasys and Aurora Flight Sciences, engineers melded 3-D printing with printed electronics, according to Bringans. An Optomec Aerosol Jet system was used to print a conformal sensor, antenna and circuitry directly onto the wing of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) model. The wing was then 3-D printed with the Stratasys Fused Deposition Modeling process. Aurora, which makes UAVs, provided electrical and sensor designs.

Road ahead
In some ways this is like the Wild West, in part because there is a robust creativity and spirit of exploration that is taking advantage of existing technologies, putting them together in new and clever ways. But the ecosystem is far from stabilized. We still need to build libraries and devices and circuits processes as well as weave together partnerships for a cohesive manufacturing infrastructure—from design all the way to printing—to realize these multibillion-dollar visions that are dancing in many heads.