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Printed Electronics: Closer Than (But Not Where) You Think

Printed electronics have been hyped as a potential growth area for printers for years. Pete Basiliere offers a reality check on the current state of printed electronics, what some top applications are, and what printers need to know if they want to pursue them.

By Pete Basiliere
Published: March 16, 2020

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Pete Basiliere provides research-based insights on 3D printing and digital-printing hardware, software and materials, best practices, go-to-market strategies and technology trends. Pete has more than four decades of engineering, operations management and thought-leadership experience in the printing industry. His expertise ranges from “2D” letterpress, offset and digital printing to 3D printing hardware, software, materials and services. https://monadnockinsights.com

 

Discussion

By Eddy Hagen on Mar 16, 2020

Great article!

Everybody should take notice of this part: "Widespread adoption of printed electronics will not occur in the very near-term."

And also this: "However, the output is held to much higher standards than conventional print products that are seen by the human eye. Printed electronics require manufacturing capabilities that are possible but not widely available today."

 

By William Ray on Mar 17, 2020

RE: How Close Are Printed Electronics?

Peter Basiliere’s article on printed electronics (PE) presents an interesting take and, frankly, a somewhat negative look at PE. As a researcher and manufacturer in PE it seems reasonable to extend his comments on the status of PE.

Let’s define PE a little more completely in order to get a better idea of the problem. PE is best defined by several general technological approaches.

The first of these, disposable sensors, are relatively ubiquitous such as glucose test strips, disposable temperature sensors, pH sensors and so forth. These are made using traditional printing and coating techniques on, generally, narrow web presses. These devices are made in the million(s) quantity.

The second of these is organic printed electronics (OPE). As far as I am aware, Arvid Hübler, a TAGA member, built the first PE semiconductor twenty plus years ago (Hubler, A, et al., POLYTRONIC 2002 Proceedings). This was an organic device with many issues but was absolutely remarkable for the times. These devices were based upon the then new materials science technology of conductive / printed organic polymers.

At the time many thought that the end game for OPE was silicon replacement. This did not turn out well as these materials are fragile, difficult to deal with in terms of encapsulation and had very slow operating speeds.

The third of these is to print fabricated semiconductor devices that are very small. Two approaches have been employed. The first is a deterministic approach – e.g. laying down ordered arrays – using a pad printing technique developed by John Rogers group (PNAS, 98(9) 4835). This has been used for several types of display prototypes particularly by Korean research groups. This is a very difficult technique to master.

The second approach us using of small die for, particularly, optoelectronics is to make an ink using these very small die (30 micrometer diameter devices) and simply print them. By building inks robust printed electronic materials can be built using screen presses or flexographic presses at speed (ndeg.com) that are viable commercial products that can be found in your local Walmart store (for one).

The fourth of these is hybrid electronics that are mostly printed. Here, denser, larger scale devices are applied to printed substrates. An example of this would be light up RFID smart labels that provide both security and shelf attraction in the retail setting.

Also, keep in mind that much of printed electronics disappears into other products as components. They are, thus, not obvious to the casual user.

I have been in this industry for decades. Organizations I have been associated with have helped printers deal with many of the technological changes over the years. Any technology takes a while to mature and printed electronics is not unique in this regard. However, smart, printed devices are actually here and will become more prevalent. The real question is whether printers will be able to deal with them.

 

By Pete Basiliere on Mar 19, 2020

Thank you, William, for the thoughtful and comprehensive response.

I agree that printed electronics require more time to mature to the point where the majority of printing companies (approximately 98% of which have less than $4 million in annual revenue) become providers. In the meantime, yes, smart printed devices are available.

Indeed, printed electronics offer potential, immediate business improvements by improving employees’ performance, health, and safety at printing companies of all sizes.

 

By William Ray on Mar 20, 2020

Pete, it should be emphasized that the key problem remains the miserable state of technical education within the print community.

Printing is a metaphor for what the electronics industry refers to as "board stuffing". The key here is speed and labor. Right now we can build "stuffed" electronics at 6-8 meters per minute with 100% testing.

The point of all of this is that is that conventional methods cannot compete with these costs.

Work is needed for this to mature but simple printed electronics using semiconducting devices exists now and will, I believe eventually replace much of the board manufacturing business.

What our industry needs is printers with a knowledge of electronics. The print schools need to step up to this challenge. Much of the future of printing depends upon this.

 

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