(E)merging technologies

A handful of new technologies moving from the R&D and lab stages into production and mass markets are set to revolutionize manufacturing.

By Morand Fachot

A number of new disruptive technologies, also known as KETs (key enabling technologies), have been the object of extensive R&D for years and even decades in some cases. This holds true for fibre optics, printed electronics and nanotechnologies. Some technologies have already found application in industry and elsewhere, while others are moving from the R&D and lab stages into production and mass markets, and benefit from IEC International Standards to support their progress. These KETs tend to interact as some of their domains of application overlap. The resulting synergies are set to revolutionize many industrial sectors.

Printed circuit boards can fit in tiny spaces
Printed circuit boards can fit in tiny spaces

Light and more at the end of the fibre

The principle of transmitting light through glass has been known for a long time. Glass rods (straight or bent) were used for internal illumination in medical examination as early as the 1880s.

Light can be transmitted through total internal reflection. It travels along the length of the carrier's glass core, bouncing off its internal surfaces when it hits the external layer (or cladding) as this does not let the light escape.

The development of optical fibres for communication started in earnest in the 1960s with research into new types of glass resulting in the invention of the first commercially viable low-loss (i.e. one that absorbs very little light) hair-thin optical fibre by Corning Incorporated in 1970. This highly transparent strand of glass was capable of carrying 65 000 times more information (voice, data and video) than copper wire, an important consideration as, increasingly, copper wires were proving unable to meet the growing bandwidth needs of modern society.

The parallel development of semiconductor lasers capable of converting an electrical signal into light and transmitting that light through fibre optic cables over long distances, and of optical receivers converting light into electricity at the receiving end, made possible the transmission of information through optic fibre cables. Today these form the backbone of the telecommunication and broadcast industries, allowing the transmission of limitless volumes of data, audio and video across the world, linking continents and bringing this content from anywhere right through to what is known as the "last mile" – that is, to nodes, buildings or homes.

Fibre optic systems can also be found in many other sectors such as IT and multimedia (for storage, printed boards and connections), medicine (for viewing and working inside the body with endoscopes and lasers), test and measurement applications (where optic sensors and fibres are used to measure various parametres and to transmit them between devices or back to the sending device in loop tests) and in many other industrial and commercial domains.

IEC TC 86: Fibre optics, established in 1984, and its SCs (Subcommittees), are central to the development of the entire sector and all related industries as they prepare Standards, specifications and technical reports for fibre optic-based systems, subsystems, modules, devices and components. As of September 2014 they had issued close to 440 publications.

Always smaller

Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at the atomic scale, is seen as another key technology with the potential to change economies and lives in the future in much the same way as the information technology revolution has done over the past two/three decades. It has been described as the resource for the next industrial revolution.

Its ultimate goal is to build nanomachines, mechanical or electromechanical devices whose dimensions are measured in nanometres (millionths of a millimetre).

Companies and governments are investing heavily in nanotechnology and some commercial products are beginning to appear on the market. Despite this, many major applications for nanotechnology are still some 5-10 years away. As private investors often look for short-term ROIs (returns on investment) of 1-3 years, some governments step in to ensure support for nanotechnology R&D in its early stages.

This is the case in the US where the President’s 2015 Budget provides over USD 1,5 billion for the NNI (National Nanotechnology Initiative), bringing the cumulative investment in this government initiative to nearly USD 21 billion since its inception in 2001. Recent investments in the NNI are aimed at "accelerating the transition from basic R&D to innovations that support national priorities, while maintaining a strong base of foundational research, to provide a pipeline for future nanotechnology-based innovations".

Large investments in nanotechnologies can also be observed in the EU, Japan and in countries as diverse as Brazil, India and South Africa, according to a joint NNI/OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) symposium report. The nanotechnology sector covers a wide range of domains, many linked to electrotechnology. Among these are initiatives that aim to help overcome current performance barriers and substantially improve the collection, conversion and storage of solar energy.

The IEC commissioned a study on "Nanotechnology in the sectors of solar energy and energy storage" from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI. The study found that there is a whole range of nanomaterials which will improve generation from solar sources and storage of renewable energies.

IEC TC 113 develops International Standards for the technologies relevant to electrical and electronic products and systems in the field of nanotechnology.

The TC is developing and has already published International Standards for the use of nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes or graphene, as well as for nano-enabled electrotechnical products.

Print that circuit!

Printed technologies represent another recent KET, which is fast expanding as a result of rising demand for relatively low-cost and small consumer electronic goods. Producing conventional electronics using silicon-based components is costly and presents some environmental issues, making it necessary to find other technologies.

Using additive manufacturing processes, some producers have started printing electronic parts and components on rigid or flexible substrates.

Printing techniques are often similar to those used in conventional printing, such as offset, screen printing, flexography or inkjet. Each of these techniques for printed electronics production has been developed over preceding decades using a wide choice of substrates and inks and resulting in the availability of an extensive and expanding range of products. They include printed circuit boards, flexible displays, PV (photovoltaic) cells, lights, memory, sensors, RFID (radio frequency identification) and NFC (near field communication) systems, to name but a few.

The demand for new kinds of electronic goods and the variety of low-cost products made possible by printing electronics and use of a range of printing techniques and materials point to the emergence of a very large market.

The research and consulting company IDTechEx expects the market to grow nearly 10-fold between 2013 and 2020 to exceed USD 55 billion.

Over 3 000 companies are currently active in the printed electronics domain, most of them in North America, East Asia and Europe.

Since the focus has been shifting in recent years from developing printed electronics technologies to manufacturing products, a need for standardization has emerged. TC 119: Printed electronics, was established in October 2011 to meet this need. It currently has 13 participating countries and 8 observer countries. It develops International Standards for terminology, materials, processes, equipment, products and health/safety/environment in the field of printed electronics.

Overlapping areas

A significant feature of these KETs is a frequent overlapping of many of their domains of application and even of the technologies and processes they use. This is reflected in the web of their relationships and sometimes derives from their origin.

TC 86 and its SC 86B: Fibre optic interconnecting devices and passive components, have a liaison with TC 113. Some techniques used in printed electronics can be applied in the production of fibre optic systems and components. Richard C. A. Pitwon, Secretary of TC 86/JWG (Joint Working Group) 9: Optical functionality for electronic assemblies, told e-tech that "optical waveguides can be manufactured using conventional printed circuit board processing techniques such as photolithography and laser direct imaging. Combining both disciplines to produce 'printed photonics' offers a potentially low-cost route to mass manufacture of embedded electro-optical systems".

TC 113 had an advisory group on printed electronics; this was disbanded due to the creation of TC 119. TC 113 and TC 119 identified a significant overlap of their technical responsibility especially in the materials area since nanomaterials are widely used in printed electronics. The TC Secretaries maintain a close liaison so as to prevent duplication of work and the creation of inconsistent Standards.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, another disruptive new technology, shares common features and can interact with the areas of fibre optics, printed electronics and nanotechnology.

For fibre optics Pitwon notes that "the accuracy of modern 3D printing techniques will soon make it suitable to rapidly prototype optical coupling and interconnect elements, which would be required to provide the critical connectivity to waveguides inside optical circuit boards". As for printed electronics, they are produced applying additive manufacturing processes, which are also starting to be used to build up nanostructures.

All of these innovative and disruptive technologies, which depend to a great extent on IEC International Standards, will become more and more important in future manufacturing, making it possible to create new products and increase energy supply and storage from renewable sources, among many other benefits.

Printed circuit boards can fit in tiny spaces Printed circuit boards can fit in tiny spaces
It is possible now to print nanomaterials using additive manufacturing (3D printing) techniques It is possible now to print nanomaterials using additive manufacturing (3D printing) techniques
It is possible now to print nanomaterials using additive manufacturing (3D printing) techniques It is possible now to print nanomaterials using additive manufacturing (3D printing) techniques