Printed electronics industry 'needs to stop technology focus'

The printed-electronics industry needs to focus on building systems rather than just enabling technologies if it aims to break into high-volume applications in consumer products, delegates at the Printed Electronics Europe conference heard today (13 April).

“Many giant companies are frustrated with printed electronics,” said Peter Harrop, chairman of conference organiser IDTechEx. “Too many times they hear: ‘We only make this part, you are on your own for the rest’. These big companies are sold on the idea of using this stuff, they just want you to start the process.

“Materials suppliers need to develop pull-through products even if they aim only to supply materials,” Harrop added. “But often, they are just waiting for the phone to ring.”

Kenneth McGuire, principal scientist at Procter & Gamble, explained that in packaging alone, there are serious opportunities for printed electronics. He pointed to the success that some brands have had with much more attractive packaging in getting consumers to pick up products in the supermarkets. “Those have changed the way that we have done our our design work. But I think [printed electronics] technologies can move that to a new level.”

McGuire said potential applications loom in making P&G’s products easier to use. “There are products that we can create that we don’t know we can create today. We are looking for help from you to create those,” he said, addressing the printed-electronics suppliers.

“You might be able to walk into a Samsung or a Sony with a great new display technology and they will understand what they can do with it,” McGuire said, but general consumer-products companies will need more help to see the potential. “I agree with Peter. We need solutions and components more than we need technologies. If you have a timer, that could be huge, rather than saying: ‘We created these great new transistors’.”

McGuire pointed to systems issues such as power delivery as just one potential roadblock to the widespread use of printed electronics in labels and packaging. “We hear a lot about smart labels but how do we supply power to them? Our Duracell folks don’t know how we can supply power to a label today.”

Nokia and Total identified flexibility as one of the key enablers for printed electronics. Chris Bower, principal scientist at Nokia’s research centre in Cambridge said it is important to develop stretchable substrates to put concepts such as the Morph, unveiled in 2008, into production.

Marc Vermeersch, head of R&D in the solar and new energies division of Total said flexibility is crucial in solar cells. “We feel we need flexibility for building integration. My business colleagues are asking me to develop even crystalline silicon technologies that are flexible.”

Vermeersch said he could see a bright future for organic thin-film solar cells because they are relatively straightforward to make flexible, so that they can conform to a surface, and because efficiencies are increasing rapidly as research progresses.

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