Happy Holden predicts both technologies and standards will change to address the huge potential of this market.
Flexible circuits are a bright spot when it comes to growth for printed circuit boards, but the overall market is still small compared to rigd boards. Printed electronics may change those volumes significantly by bringing dramatically lower costs that could open up extremely high volume markets.
Printed electronics use additive processes instead of etching materials away, printing conductive inks and insulators on substrates to build up circuitry. Most additive techniques have been around for years, but the new field being dubbed printed electronics uses high volume printing techniques, new inks and substrates as inexpensive as paper and plastic.
"We're talking about printing electronics at the cost of making magazines and newspapers. You can use printing presses to make electronics. Instead of different colors, you're printing conductors, insulators, resistors and other components," said Happy Holden, director of electronics, Gentex Corp.
Some market researchers are predicting huge growth. MarketsandMarkets predicts that the global printed electronics market will reach $24.25 billion by 2015. However, there's some skepticism about these huge volumes, since the market is still in the nascent stages.
"All the market predictions are based on finding killer apps. There are many areas where printed electronics may be very successful. What will drive it will be applications that can't be met by conventional flex circuits," Holden said.
He will be discussing the field in a keynote presentation, The Future of Flexible Circuits Technology: Printed Electronics, during the IPC Conference on Flex Circuits in Irvine, Calif. June 12-14. The conference will address conventional flex circuits while providing presentations on this new market, which will use extremely flexible substrates like cloth and paper.
Holden noted that photovoltaics on polyimides or glass could be a prime example. The circuitry on these materials will be created with inks without using any copper cladding. These solar cells could cost considerably less, and they may make it possible to turn shingles or drapes into solar devices.
Another potential market may be disposable medical sensors that people will wear. These chips could talk to smart phones via Bluetooth so data could be sent to the cloud for collection and analysis.
The usage model for products printed on paper will be vastly different. Quality and reliability requirements will be much different for products that have lifetimes that may be measured in hours or days rather than years. New standards may be required.
"IPC's class one, two and three standards may be too extreme. We need something like class 0 or minus 1," Holden said.
He predicts that some of the circuits will use a more proven technology: "Some early applications may be hybrids, where you print a catalyst on paper and add some copper by electroless techniques. Eventually, these hybrids will evolve to use printed conductors, not just a printed catalyst," Holden said.Learn more about the printed circuit board market and publications that provide informed perspective and relevant analysis of emergent technologies.