Printed Electronics: A New Revolution

E-mail Jennifer Ernst

An electronic time/temperature sensor for 30 cents? Yes, really. This printed electronic temperature sensor is under development for monitoring perishable goods and pharmaceuticals and is the first of a breed of ultra-low-cost electronic sensor devices enabled by a new manufacturing approach—printing rather than lithography.

The idea of printing electronics is not new. Transistors were printed at Bell Labs more than a decade ago, and printed electronic sensors go back even further. In fact, sensors have been one of the richest areas of experimentation for printed electronics. Printed sensors have been used to detect and measure everything from temperature and humidity, to pressure, light, sound, food freshness, and toxic gas.

Until recently there had been limited commercial progress in integrating printed sensors with the other printed components, such as memory, display, or RF communications, to fully capitalize on the cost advantages of printing.

That is about to change—and as it does, new opportunities open in the sensor field.

Printed Electronics—Why now?
Printing electronics has clear advantages in production cost. Capital expenditure is low; material utilization is high.

Sensors have been a prominent area for demonstrating printed electronic functionality within the research and development community. The device structure is straightforward, the printing process is relatively simple, and the materials available for sensors are plentiful. Worldwide, a significant tool chest of printed sensors has been built.

The same has not been true for other components. Memory and logic, in particular, require high-precision printing and options have been scarcer. Printed logic requires specialized functional inks and has been among the last of the component technologies to mature.

Recently, however, printed rewritable memory has become commercially available at a price point lower than an EEPROM. In parallel, chemical advances from companies such as Polyera, Merck, and BASF have yielded materials that are "good enough" for commercial printing of logic.

In October 2011, an important milestone was demonstrated for the integration of sensors, memory, and logic into printed systems. Thin Film Electronics showed the first printed addressable memory, using organic logic developed at PARC, a Xerox company, to read and write a printed ferroelectric memory—showing the first building block of a scalable printed system. Since that demonstration, additional companies have joined our ecosystem to develop the first printed electronic time/temperature system.

Unlocking new opportunities in the sensor market
The cost of a printed sensor device will be 1/10th to 1/100th the cost of a sensor system made with conventional electronics. While printed electronics are much lower performance than their more mature silicon-based cousins, they offer a cost-per-function that is unattainable in any other way.

As a result, printed sensor systems will complement, rather than displace, conventional electronic devices. They provide digital functionality in segments of the market that have historically only been addressable by chemical sensors.

Take, for example, the time/temperature sensor market. There is a striking gulf between the lowest priced electronic devices at $5.00 and the highest priced chemistry-based labels at 40 cents. Printed electronics will bridge that gap, bringing electric functionality to labels selling for tens of cents, and making it possible to move digital sensing to the item level.

Enabling the Internet of Things
Gartner has identified "The Internet of Things" (IoT) as one of the Top 10 Strategic Technologies of this decade, and IDC has projected the market for Intelligent Systems and IoT to reach two trillion dollars by 2015.

These projections have their skeptics given the cost point of traditional electronics.

Printed sensor systems are the key. They will enable the use of electronics in ways that have never been possible before. Intelligence can be added to items you throw away: disposable electronics for the first time.

Leading companies in Asia, North America, and Europe have begun planning the integration of such devices into their products and systems to increase value and product differentiation. Creating the right partnerships will be key to introducing these types of electronics to high-volume applications.

As Randall Sherman of New Ventures Research put it, "… the whole printed electronics industry is the next revolution in electronics technology. We're seeing just the tip of the iceberg at this point" (San Jose Mercury News, Printed Revolution Coming to Electronics, May 21, 2012).

Now is the time to get involved.

Jennifer Ernst is Vice President, North America for Thin Film Electronics ASA, Oslo, Norway. She can be reached at 510-438-6850, [email protected].

Jennifer Ernst leads Thinfilm's business development activities in North America and much of Asia. She is a member of the FlexTech Governing Board, the US national consortium on printed and flexible electronics, and has worked in printed electronics for almost a decade. Prior to joining Thinfilm in April 2011, she was Director of Business Development at PARC, a Xerox company. She holds an MBA from Santa Clara University and BA from San Francisco State University.


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