Printable Electronics' Potential

E-mail Tom Kevan

Every now and then, you read about an emerging technology, and you just know it's going to be big. Last week, I read two news items on Sensors' Web site on printable electronics, and I knew it had the potential to turn the sensors industry upside down.

Printable electronics can be defined as circuitry created with conductive polymer and nano-metallic inks using a wide variety of printing technologies. In its report "Printable Electronics: Roadmaps, Markets and Opportunities," industry analyst firm NanoMarkets asserts that "printable electronics offers compelling advantages over more conventional ways of producing electronic circuits. These include the ability to cost effectively mass produce products that could never be created using the old CMOS paradigm, such as RFID tags that are inexpensive enough to replace bar codes." The report goes on to say that ink-jet printing offers the potential to create specialized circuits in small runs that will address the semiconductor industry's need to reduce prototyping costs. NanoMarkets also claims that printable electronics will enable companies to create new forms of consumer products embedded with intelligence (read sensors). The firm ends its upbeat prediction by saying that all this can be done with relatively modest upfront investments—sweetening the pot even further.

Better Printing, Better Ink
All this was supported by the two news items on Sensors' Web site, which discussed advances in the inks and printing mechanisms extending printable electronics to applications involving the construction of sensors.

The first news item "Inkjet Solution Streamlines Development of Printable Electronics" discussed how PixDro's LabP150 inkjet printer could be used to streamline the development of printable electronics applications. The P150 is capable of 5 micron accuracy and is driven by PixDro's PrintGen proprietary software, which provides complete control over the printing process by means of predetermined print strategies for target applications. The software enables printing of large homogeneous areas and fine patterns, which are required in the plastic electronics industry. One of PixDro's main applications is sensor construction.

The second item "Water-Based Conductive Printing Ink Introduced for RFID Antennas" announced the introduction of a novel, water-based conductive printing ink that provides manufacturers of RFID antennas and other printed electronic circuitry with production and performance advantages. The new technology enables Acheson to provide products with a wider scope of processing capability, a critical requirement for RFID and other emerging applications in the printed electronics market.

The press release also pointed out another advantage that the ink offers sensor manufacturers: The inks are environmentally friendly and do not require expensive solvent recovery equipment during processing. In addition, they are fast drying and highly stable at room temperature, enabling high-speed assembly with minimum product waste.

A Lot to Be Gained
It seems that printable electronics offers real advantages to sensor manufacturers, in terms of streamlining production processes and reducing manufacturing costs. Because this type of electronics can be printed on a wider range of materials, sensor producers might be able to use this technology to reduce their devices' form factors. And the new production processes could throw traditional economies of scale of sensor manufacturing out the window.

Another advantage stems from the materials being used. The inks applied to create the electronics can simplify the challenge posed by the European Union's Reduction of Hazardous Substances directives, which limit the amount of lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyl, and polybrominated diphenyl ether.

This technology has yet to have a major impact on the sensor industry. But give it time—it will.

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