Generic close-up image of a hand-held device that uses printed electronics.

Analysis: printed electronics stalled by lack of integration?

Printed electronics is being held back by too close a focus on component technologies when potential users are more interested in being able to buy readymade processes that they can incorporate more easily. In response, some of the technology suppliers have begun to recast themselves as technology integrators.

Raghu Das, CEO of analyst firm IDTechEx, which organised the Printed Electronics 2014 conference in Berlin, taking place this week, said a recent survey showed that the companies interested in using the technology are more likely to be consumer brands than electronics specialists.

“It's really the marketing people who have the major need to move the technology out and scale it up. They are finding that printed electronics can add value, as they encounter increasing friction from private-label brands,” said Das. “The work is very creative because these companies are looking for differentiation. But the biggest complaint is the lack of integrators in the market who can pull these technologies together for them.”

Tony Offley-Shore, senior electronics engineer at Hasbro, added that the toymaker had “found it difficult to buy solutions in printed electronics. There are more integrated manufacturers than there were but there is still a limited choice and limited capability”.

Manufacturers such as T-Ink, which started out as a supplier of conductive inks, have started to act as integrators for specific projects. "We feel that, like most people in the industry, we have fallen into the technology part of it.,” said Terry Kaiserman, CTO of T-Ink. “We are in the midst of a transformation. Our original plan was to build everything around conductive compositions. Today we realise we need to collaborate.”

Kaiserman used a project with Printechnologics, which uses reflective ink to let capacitive touchscreens ‘read’ the labels on consumer products, as an example of the kinds of projects that T-Ink is now involved in. 

Matt Ream, vice president of marketing at printed battery company Blue Spark Technologies, agreed with the need for suppliers to become integrators, if only occasionally: “In some cases we've had to take on the integration role or act as the quarterback on a project.”

Although the lack of experienced integrators threatens to hold back the development of printed electronics, users also pointed to slow progress in the core technologies themselves as an issue, although many accept that practical systems will often involve hybrid implementations that combine conventional ICs with printed circuits and that the promise of much lower cost compared to silicon technology is still some way off.

Philip Cooper, head of ideas at secure-printing specialist De La Rue, added that although progress in manufacturable printed electronics has been disappointing since he started following the technology a number of years ago, “I continue to believe that it still holds great promise... At the same time, users have a responsibility to the industry to get together to define the problems that we face”. He proposed that users “combine resources to try to pull this thing through”. 

More information:
Printed electronics vie for the low end
Printed-electronics suppliers 'need to offer solutions'

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