Printed Electronics Gets Serious About Manufacturing

New applications are looking very promising, and the list of companies that didn’t show up for a recent conference was as important as those who did.


A leading indicator in the coming-of-age saga of a new technology is the enthusiasm to be in the business of supplying manufacturing infrastructure. To sell infrastructure, there needs to be a belief that there are several customers out there. At the recent IDTech conference for printed electronics, the transition to manufacturing was clear based on those who presented and some notable absences.

Two customers, Thin Film Electronics based in Sweden and Flextronics based in the United States, talked about capacity in the hundreds of millions to billions of units a year. Thin Film is supplying intelligent labels and Flextronics supplies wearable electronics. Novasense and Tactonic both continued to talk about touchscreens and haptic feedback, an application where flexibility is a requirement for device functionality rather than a “nice to have.” Isorg gave an update on its large area organic photo-detectors.

Interestingly, the two OLED display giants—Samsung and LG—did not present this year even though they have shown remarkable displays at the big display conferences. In my experience this usually is a sign that they are getting serious about a technology. They let their products speak for themselves. Also notably absent was anyone talking about flexible TFT arrays, probably for the same reason.

To me, the most eye-catching manufacturing presentation was from Dupont Tiejin Films, which showed printed-electronics-grade film with optical quality finish. This is a big deal because substrate surface quality has been identified by several groups, including the SAIL team at HP Labs, as a critical yield issue.

Dupont film

Dupont film with surface quality Ra 0.6nm Sample size 608 microns, from Dupont presentation at IDtech 2013.

Elsewhere, metallization technology continues to get a lot of attention. Applied Materials, Novacentric, Intrinsiq and Toyobo all talked about different aspects of depositing and sintering of metal dispersions. Cond Align showed an interesting twist in that they processed the metal dispersion in the presence on an electric field in order to connect the metal particles and create conductive paths.

Roll to roll equipment suppliers were represented by Bosh Rexroth GE and Kroenert GE, with Kroenert talking about slot die coaters as a particularly effective coating process for high quality films for valuable materials. Both of these companies are based in Germany, an example of the fallout of that country’s investment in new manufacturing capacity in solar.

There was a session on OLEDs, but as I noted earlier, without Samsung and LG. I have a bad feeling that players in this space that do not have a strategic connection to these two companies are simply going to get run over. At the conference there were several sessions on other applications such as photovoltaics, energy harvesting, supercapacitors, 3D printing and graphene as a flexible material. There are plenty of new opportunities.

Overall, the maturation of OLED displays will eliminate all the “can it be done” uncertainty around the printed technology. The concern now will be how to avoid getting run over as soon as any application matures. Establishing IP will be essential.

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