UBM Tech
UBM Tech

Flexible electronics stretch the limits of imagination

-December 02, 2013

This article is part of EDN’s Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2014 feature, where EDN editors examine some of the hot trends and technologies in 2013 that promise to shape technology news in 2014 and beyond.

Bendable materials are changing how we think of and use substrates. R&D announcements are made nearly daily on new scientific research that will help enable flexible electronics (electronic products that are bendable or those that can be flexed). It is an exciting time to be in materials science, and the collaborations between chemists, physicists, and electrical engineers are sure to yield inspiring results.

One place where cutting-edge work is always done is the PARC Electronic Materials and Devices Lab. Gregory Whiting, a researcher there, reports that there are many materials being used for flexible electronics, ranging from soft organics to thin amorphous and crystalline semiconductors. Currently PARC is working on thin-film transistors (TFT) and p-i-n photodiodes for flat panel display and image sensor backplanes.

printed flexible electronics parc
Researchers at PARC have demonstrated low-temperature amorphous silicon on plastic; laser-crystallized p-Si on metal foil and quartz; and fabrication techniques including laser recrystallization and jet-printed, mask-less digital lithography. (Image courtesy of PARC)

The use of new materials is requiring a step back from traditional processing techniques, which may incorporate too much heat for bendable materials. Whiting notes that printing techniques to deposit solution-based materials, low-temperature deposition processes for conventional large-area semiconductors, and transfer of pre-formed small and/or thin microfabricated electronic devices are all working to make it possible to integrate electronics onto flexible plastic substrates.

We’ve certainly seen the rise of 3D printing this year, and with it the potential to rapidly prototype flexible circuits. I recently spoke with a trio of students/recent graduates from Australia who launched a PCB desktop printer on Kickstarter. Priced at $1199, their printer can quickly create circuit boards on paper, plastic, glass, wood, ceramic, silicone, and fabric. Their company, Cartesian, was looking to raise $30,000 on their entire campaign and instead raised $120,000 in just their first week. (At press time they had nearly $130,000.)

In addition to developing new processing techniques, scientists, and engineers are performing R&D on the materials used in flexible electronics, and their work continues at a rapid pace. Papers on new materials for printed flexible electronics are now regular features at conferences such as this year’s 223rd meeting of the Electrochemical Society (ECS) held in Toronto, Canada as well as for organizations such as the Society of Plastics Engineers and SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

Bendable electronics are not new, but the opportunity for new materials and accessibility makes them poised for greatness. So, what else makes them a hot technology for 2014? In a word: growth.

We can expect flexible electronics to make incredible inroads into consumer electronics markets in the coming year. Frost & Sullivan estimates that the current flexible electronics market is around $1.7-1.8 billion USD and is projected to grow at a CAGR of around 40 percent until the year 2018.

The company’s research pinpoints the consumer electronics market (especially the Asia-Pacific region) and a worldwide demand for smaller form-factor products. These products will mainly be enabled by bio-degradable organic materials, notes the semiconductor research group’s program manager Aravind Seshagiri and research analyst Priya Venkatraman. In other words, the world’s desire to “go green” may also accelerate the growth of this technology.

Some leading applications for bendable electronics include displays, photovoltaics, flexible batteries, sensors, memories, and radio-frequency identification devices (RFIDs). The way flexible electronics are used will change over time, and Frost & Sullivan has outlined its projections in this roadmap.

Total Flexible Electronics Market: Technology Roadmap, Global, 2008-2018

To be true, there are challenges facing bendable circuits. Seshagiri and Venkatraman think one of the secrets of success for this technology is the creation of strategic partnerships between research facilities, materials developers, and equipment suppliers. They think the best opportunities for flexible electronics will be in new application areas.

Another challenge will be manufacturing. As new substrate materials are developed, they will need to be tested for different manufacturing processes. Seshagiri and Venkatraman point out that plastic substrates, in particular, will require careful handling to avoid damage and melting. This brings us back to the importance of the tight working relationship between research, materials developers, and equipment suppliers.

The good news is the challenges are being addressed. Germany is an active area for work in bendable electronics, with companies such as Robert Bosch, Fraunhofer, Siemens, and BASF. Alliances between research institutions, manufacturers, material suppliers, and product developers in the United States have “escalated and will be the key driving force in mass enablement of flexible electronic products. In addition, aggressive investments and research activities by technology giants like Samsung and LG will drive growth,” says Venkatraman.

As some of the most creative minds in the world converge on this technology from the perspective of different scientific and engineering disciplines, we may be in for an unprecedented stretch of imagination.

Also watching:
  • 3D flash: With claims of technologies that achieve up to 24 layers, memory manufacturers are committed to vertical flash, but how high can they go and how will they make it work?
  • Metal in board: Now that board designs are more dense, the PCB has to assume power management functions and thermal properties that were previously handled with heat sinks, etc. Including metal layers on the board and using the PCB as an active part of the circuit is already occurring in LED markets, for example, but the advent of new dielectrics will help this trend grow into the industrial control market.

Read more of EDN's Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2014:

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