Here come the products. The annual IDTechEx event, Printed Electronics USA, took place in Phoenix, Arizona in December 2006 and it was larger than ever before, with over 300 delegates attending. IDTechEx prioritises the commercialization of this technology in this conference series, which takes place annually in the US, UK and Japan. The term Printed Electronics rather than the old technically-led term Organic Electronics was apposite because, these days, the best devices increasingly involve both organic and inorganic patterning in the same device. But what really matters is do they work and can they benefit society?
This year's event was very different from previous years in relying less on concepts and dreams and instead seeing the demonstration of a plethora of products for sale or soon to be for sale. These varied from anoraks with printed heating elements to wiring in cars being replaced by cheaper, lighter, less space-consuming printed patterns. There were plenty of light emitting displays, non-emitting displays and photovoltaics on rigid substrates. However, the substrate was more often made of plastic and survival from being hit with a hammer showed the advance these represent. AC electroluminescent displays are ahead in being commonly on flexible substrates and printed today with up to nine inorganic layers on a polymer film and a burgeoning number of commercial successes from the very small to the super billboard twenty meters long.
Most players remain focussed on flexible plastic devices because that increases the potential tenfold with its potentially lower price, lower installation cost and applicability even in the most awkward locations.
The three talks from different parts of the US military illustrated how this sector is still advancing the technology and applications faster than most. Here the objective of reducing the weight of the warfighter's pack by two-thirds is just as important as making everything serve many purposes, such as the tent that is an antenna and photovoltaic power supply.
T-Ink once again dazzled with its unprecedented fast time to market of only a few months for a remarkable stream of new applications of existing printed technology such as batteries, sensors, buttons, lights and so on, incorporated in toys, automotive, leisure and military products for blue chip companies.
Timescales have changed. Flexible OLEDs, as displays, signage or lighting, now look ten years away but electrophoretics, such as the Sony / E-ink e-books, are already here with flexible versions much less than ten years away. Some pundits have responded by newly forecasting printed flexible OLEDs at low volumes for the next few years but flexible electrophoretics volumes are predicted to be much higher. Many forms of photovoltaics now look launchable in 2007, so maybe some forecasts for this sector will rise. Printed Thin Film Transistor Circuits remain one year away but many working samples were shown of imaginative potential applications such as illuminating warnings of temperature excursion of food, with primitive RFID functionality. There is less talk nowadays of using TFTCs in unimaginative replacement of existing products. Most agree that a high percentage of applications of printed electronics in the next few years will be in applications created out of fresh air – new markets.
Companies are thrashing about to find their sweet spots in all this. Some not involved say they are launching improved conductor patterning, including new materials as their entry point. Some in printed conductors are considering developing semiconductors. Others hope to replace Indium Tin Oxide semi-transparent electrodes in OLEDs, AC electroluminescent displays and so on. Here progress is slow but HC Starck is a leader. Conductive plastics with better than resistor-like performance are still elusive. However, these problems are all seen as commercial opportunities and the giants of the chemical, plastics, electronic, printing, packaging and electronics industries were all there in force to see how they could participate in this new industry, with its potential of hundreds of billions of dollars yearly, dwarfing the success of the silicon chip. Plenty of potential purchasers of the resulting products were there to say what they wanted and presentations by venture capitalists and companies seeking funds attracted much attention. Investment is heatting up too.
For more information, attend Printed Electronics Europe 2007 - to be held in Cambridge on April 17-18 2007 - or visit www.printelec.com.