May 21, 2012
Printed revolution coming to electronics technology
By Troy Wolverton
San Jose Mercury News
Posted by ContraCostaTimes.com
For decades, digital technology has been synonymous with silicon. But maybe for not much longer.
The age of printed electronics may soon be upon us. Following years of hype and development, technologies that allow chips and other electronic components to be made using techniques akin to inkjet printing -- rather than by lithography or other standard methods -- may finally be reaching maturity.
Manufacturers using these techniques already have in the works low-cost digital sensors, price placards and memory chips. Such printed electronics could soon be found in newly interactive versions of traditional board games, and could be used to offer special promotions to particular customers in a supermarket or to ensure that a box of bananas hasn't been exposed to the sun for too long in transit.
"Basically the whole printed electronics industry is kind of the next revolution in electronics technology," said Randall Sherman, an analyst who focuses on electronics manufacturing at New Ventures Research. "We're seeing just the tip of the iceberg at this point."
With printed electronics, transistors and other electronic components are typically deposited on sheets of plastic in successive layers, much like the way a 3D printer works or the way an inkjet printer puts ink on a page. The techniques don't typically require clean rooms, costly fabrication plants or silicon wafers.
Because of those advantages, printed electronic parts can potentially be made much faster at a much lower price than comparable silicon ones. And because they are printed on plastic rather than etched on silicon or glass, they can be incorporated into parts that can be bent or rolled up.
Those capabilities could create new products and applications, said Paul Semenza, an analyst with NPD DisplaySearch, a market research firm.
"When people talk about the 'Internet of things,' where everything has got an IP address, it may not be practical to have silicon chips on every point on earth that you want to have connected," he said. Printed electronics technologies "could enable completely new things."
The advantages of printed electronics have been touted for years. But the process hasn't been widely adopted and has seen only limited success in the few markets where it's been tried, including photovoltaic solar cells and organic light-emitting diode displays.
One problem is that printing techniques can't come close to the precision reached in lithography and standard electronics manufacturing, analysts say. "You're not going to replace a (Intel (INTC)) Pentium (chip) or a beautiful iPad display at this point," said Semenza.
The industry's development has also been held up by a lack of obvious markets for its products, the immaturity of the technology, the continued advances in standard electronics manufacturing and the economic downturn, analysts and industry insiders say.
"I've never seen so many smart people work so hard for so little, but in fact that's the stage we're in," said Sherman.
But maybe not for long, he and other industry experts say. The technology has matured and manufacturers are starting to pinpoint large, ready markets for their products.
After a years-long development process, San Jose-based Kovio, for example, started to ship printed radio-frequency identification tags earlier this year. Those tags, which can be used to track products as they make their way through a supply chain, will potentially cost half or even a third of those made from silicon, said Amir Mashkoori, Kovio's CEO.
Similarly, Norway-based Thinfilm expects that by early next year, toy companies will begin offering board games and trading cards that include its printed memory chips. The chips could be used to keep an updated tally of a player's Monopoly holdings, say, or to keep track of a player's points in an online game without having to log in.
Part of the challenge the industry faced was that it was developing individual components, said Davor Sutija, Thinfilm's CEO. While the components might cost less than their silicon-based counterparts, the cost advantage was often lost when they were combined with other parts.
But by using technology pioneered by PARC and teaming up with other printed electronics companies, Thinfilm has developed a way to connect and combine components to create a complete printed system. Within two years, it expects to offer with its partners products such as temperature sensors and electronic displays that would combine printed sensors, memory modules, displays and even batteries. Those systems will cost about two percent of comparable silicon-based ones, said Sutija.
One potential market could be in shipping. Some shippers use color-changing strips placed on packages to determine whether they've been exposed to excessive heat. But those strips can't say when the exposure occurred or for how long. Thinfilm plans to offer a digital sensor at a comparable price that would be able keep precise track of such things.
Similar sensors could monitor the temperature in individual rooms of a house or alert caregivers when a patient's diapers become wet, said Sutija.
With such a low price point, "We're not competing against silicon," said Sutija. "We're going head-to-head against old, commodity, qualitative technology."