Commercialization Challenges Of Flexible & Fabric Sensors – Part 1

This is the first of a multi-episode series on the commercialization of printed/flexible/stretchable and functional fabric sensors (P/F/S&FF) and sensor- based systems.   Its intent is to serve as a sequel to my earlier article entitled “Current and Future Developments in Printed/Flexible and Stretchable Sensors” that appeared in Sensors Online1.  Additionally, its intent is to bring attention to the May 8 webinar on this topic where I, who has organized and will chair, and several of the speakers who will be participating in the June 26 all-day preconference seminar at Sensors Expo will provide a “sneak preview” of the session where 15 or the world’s leaders on this topic will speak.

 

This article series, the upcoming webinar, and seminar chiefly differs from the predecessor article in that its focus will be on commercialization issues and processes (figure 1), and especially the critical success factors (CSFs) associated with commercialization rather than as an overview of technologies and research developed by leading universities and research institutes complimented by a review of the efforts of several commercial organizations to provide product to the market.  

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Fig. 1: The Sensor Commercialization Process employs a significant amount of market research in its front- end to determine product definition and in its back- end to support its optimum promotion in the market.   The central part of the process is multi-iterative for product development from a breadboard to high-volume manufacturing perspective. Courtesy: Roger Grace Associates

 

Approximately 30 months have passed since I began research this topic and I believe that now is an appropriate time to revisit these technologies in their role as highly likely solutions to a myriad of future application opportunities.  Previously reported [2] is the fact that it took an average of approximately 30 years for each of 11 different MEMS devices to translate from the discovery process to full commercialization (figure 2).    This begs the question… how long we can expect it will take for PFS and FF sensors to do likewise?  

Fig. 2: Through an extensive market research study initiated in the early 1990, 11 MEMS devices were studied as to the duration from them to translate from their discovery phase to full commercialization.   The average was approximately 30 years. Courtesy: Roger Grace Associates, Prof. Steve Walsh/University of New Mexico

 

Tekscan (Rob Podoloff, its CTO is one of the presenters in the webinar and precon seminar) as well as Interstate Electronics entered the market with printed force sensors in the late 1980-time period.   This makes this technology at least 25 years old.  My research shows that force/pressure sensors are the most popular P/F/S sensors on the market today being offered by several organizations.  P/F/S sensors that measure temperature have also become popular (figure 3).

 

Fig. 3: The MEMS Industry Commercialization Report Card was created in 1998 and critically assesses the commercialization performance of the MEMS industry.  Consisting of 14 critical success factors (CSFs),   letter grade inputs as well as verbatims are obtained from approximately 75-100 of the MEMS industry cognoscenti and is published extensively on an annual basis. Courtesy: Roger Grace Associates

 

I believe that a major future market opportunity and challenge for these devices is in bio/chemical/gas monitoring applications area as well as in photonics applications. Wearables and disposables are significant applications that are expected to drive this opportunity. Here only a relative small number of commercial offerings are currently available in printed sensors e.g. Spec Sensors in gas monitoring, SORG in photonics and MC-10 in biosensing and in woven sensors that measure pressure e.g. Sensoria.

 

I submit that many of the 14 “subjects” of the Roger Grace Associates MEMS Commercialization Report Card also apply to P/F/S and FF sensors. Several of these subjects…a.k.a. CSFs in the following episodes including infrastructure development, cluster development, marketing and market research, design for manufacturing and test and venture capital funding will be addressed.

 

It is well known and accepted that most technologies evolve through successive and continuous phases of commercialization:

  • Introduction
  • Growth
  • Maturity
  • Decline

I have observed that there have been several waves of sensors / and their associated platforms that have, or are in the process of experiencing these four phases of commercialization.  They are: 

  • Electro mechanical/discrete
  • MEMS/Silicon
  • Printed/plastic and paper
  • Functional fabric/threads

 Many Electromechanical/discrete sensors have given way to MEMS, which are currently in the mature phase and have been experiencing commoditization.  Next in line is printed/flexible/stretchable based on plastic and paper platforms and finally functional fabric sensors based on thread platforms.

 

I and my co-webinar colleagues, Dr. Leland “Chip” Spangler of Aspen Microsystems, who will address packaging and integration issues, and Rob Podoloff of Tekscan, who will address printed force sensors for medical and sports diagnostic applications, are looking forward to welcoming you to the complimentary May 8, 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. Eastern webinar

 

Mat Dirjish, Sensors Online Executive Editor will lead the webinar and you are welcome to join and submit questions.  You can also register for the all-day June 26 preconference seminar “Commercialization Opportunities for Printed/Flexible/Stretchable and Functional Fabric Sensors and Sensor-Based Systems for IoT and Wearables” and receive a $100. discount for this and the entire Sensors Expo technical program by going to the Expo website and using the discount code Rgrace100.

 

References

 

[1] R. Grace, Current and Future Developments in Printed, Flexible and Stretchable Sensors, Sensors Online, December 2015.

[2] R. Grace, S. Walsh; MEMS Industry Roadmap; Micro, Nano and Emerging Technologies Commercialization Education Foundation (MANCEF); 1990; www.mancef.org

 

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