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Printed electronics could be next disruptive technology

February 1, 2006

4 Min Read
Printed electronics could be next disruptive technology

Printed electronics is poised to become a high-volume, low-cost electronic devices production step that replaces costly silicon fabrication facilities. But what''s in it for processors?

Printed electronics appears for now a tangential technology at best for most processors, but it is one processors, and especially ones involved in micromolding or film conversion, may want to keep in mind. Often referred to as plastic electronics because light-emitting polymers are printed onto plastic or metal films or onto paper, printed electronics appears poised to be a huge technological leap that will affect plastics processing in ways not yet entirely clear.

Some large film processors with backwards integration into chemicals/plastics suppliers (and their R&D budgets), including DuPont TeijinFilms and Mitsubishi PolyesterFilm, already are heavily engaged in printed electronics development. Leonhard Kurz GmbH (Fuerth, Germany), one of the plastics industry''s leading suppliers of films for inmold decoration, also is devoting research to it. These and others view printed electronics as a potential `disruptive technology'' that changes how an entire industry functions, much as the Internet has revolutionized the music and publishing industries.

In addition, printed electronics will affect many of the largest end-use markets for processors including automotive and electrical/electronics. Consultant IDTechEx forecasts plastic electronics will be a $30 billion industry by 2015, and could reach as much as $250 billion by 2025. Printed electronics are of huge interest to a broad spectrum of OEMs, yet another reason processors will want to stay tuned. Late last year the Plastic Electronics conference in Frankfurt, Germany drew delegates from around the world including from well-known OEMs Nokia, DaimlerChrysler, Motorola, Panasonic, Samsung, Siemens, and Sony.

The cellular phone industry is one of many interested in printed electronics. "Each handset has at least one display, and many have two. So there are over a billion displays (in cell phones in circulation), at about ?10 per display," explained Antli Lääperio, Sr. VP audio-visual products at Nokia Research (Helsinki), during the Frankfurt conference. He predicts a low-cost manufacturing process for printed electronics that is competitive with glass-based LCD manufacturing could be ready by 2010 but notes the glass industry won''t slow its own development.

Among firms expected to lead the charge into this future market are Plastic Logic (Cambridge, England), which has developed equipment and technologies for printing transistors on plastic films, with a goal of replacing silicon-based displays in laptops, industrial signage, and many other applications. Stuart Evans, CEO at Plastic Logic, says his firm last year installed a $10 million prototype line and expects manufacturing ramp-up for commercial projects as early as 2008. Resolution on the flexible displays his firm makes has improved from 50 pixels per inch (ppi) in May 2004 to 100 ppi by December that year, to 300 ppi last May.

In December 2005 Plastic Logic revealed what it claims is the largest flexible organic active matrix display yet made. The 10-inch diagonal display consists of a flexible, 100-ppi-resolution, printed backplane driving an electronic paper front plane. The thickness of the display when laminated with imaging film is less than 0.4 mm. The backplane substrate is made from PET supplied by DuPont Teijin Films.

Martin Schoeppler, VP corporate strategic business development at Dimatix (Santa Clara, CA), a manufacturer of specialized ink jet print heads and inks, says his firm''s goal is development of ink jetting into a microproduction process for manufacture of electronic and bioscience applications. His firm hopes its printers will see use in applications such as printing of liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and other displays. Dimatix printers spray picoliter-sized drops of light-emitting polymers onto these screens.

Plastics processors may eventually find use for such printers, he says, for instance for decoration of very tiny, nanoscale items. One future application may be the postmolding of circuits to a cellular phone or other electronic device''s exterior casing. "You''d need a way to deposit the circuit onto the phone," he says, discounting inmold technologies as too damaging to these circuits.

It is difficult as yet to know exactly how printed electronics will impact plastics processing. But the questions are how and when it will occur, not if-reason enough for processors to keep an eye on this rapidly developing technology.

Matthew Defosse [email protected]

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