Printed electronics: from lab to fab

Printed electronics is becoming pervasive

By Alan Hodgson, Chairman IEC TC 119: Printed electronics

For a number of years printed electronics has been a technology that promised much but delivered little, but it is now moving from the laboratory into industry. In response to the need to support this transition the IEC created TC (Technical Committee) 119: Printed Electronics.

Flexible electronic components can be printed
Flexible electronic components can be printed

From lab to fab

There has been a lot of research into printed electronics as well as marketing hype surrounding the topic, but the gap between lab and fab (laboratory project to industrial fabrication) seemed never to be narrowing. However, this has now changed and real industrial applications have emerged.

There is also substantial interest within industry. A number of companies and research and technology organizations are investing in pilot line or production scale manufacturing. However, there is still much work to be done, bringing people together to take this technology further into industry.

Technology could become pervasive

In common with many other new technologies, printed electronics suffered in the early research period by over-promising both in terms of capability and of industrial readiness. The technology is not about to replace the silicon-based electronics covered by IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, in terms of complex capability. Equally, it is a long way off having the streamlined supply chains and established production of the conventional electronics covered by IEC TC 91: Electronics assembly technology. So what will it do?

Printing is a great manufacturing technique for patterning large areas of substrates with multiple layers. That is not to say that all the layers are necessarily printed – some layers requiring uniform application may be deposited using coating or evaporation. Printing also works particularly well on flexible substrates, allowing access to the flexible display, lighting and textiles markets.

In terms of product capability, printed electronics has the potential to be a pervasive technology, although not necessarily in printing entire products. Printed functional elements look likely to find their way into products in the form of components such as printed batteries, displays and sensors. Sectors such as automotive, aerospace and medical are already taking an interest in this. To facilitate this, connection needs to be made across the potential supply chain through links with other interest groups and project initiatives.

Connecting interest groups

There are a number of groups that are key to moving printed electronics forward. In the US the IS&T (Society for Imaging Science and Technology) provides insights into printing technologies as well as networking opportunities through its NIP/Digital Fabrication and Printing conference. Similarly the IPC (Association Connecting Electronics Industries) provides links into the semiconductor business and has also taken on a formal liaison with IEC TC 119.

In Europe the OE-A (Organic and Printed Electronics Association), which has been supporting IEC TC 119 from the start, provides a meeting place with potential user industries through its LOPE-C meeting in Germany.

In Asia a number of regional organizations are collaborating to bring the 5th ICFPE (International Conference on Flexible and Printed Electronics) to the region (Beijing, October 2014).

Conferences fulfil an important role. They facilitate networking with other communities, bring together all stakeholders that are interested in the field and offer the opportunity to explore specific topics or challenges in depth. In the next months, IEC TC 119 will be represented in events that cover photovoltaics and gas barrier layers, enabling it to investigate the interface with printed electronics.

Broad exposure to and collaboration with various stakeholders allow IEC TC 119 to bring this technology to industry in as wide-ranging a manner as possible.

Project initiatives

A number of initiatives have supported the transition from the lab to manufacturing. European Union FP7 (Framework programme 7), CLIP (Conductive Low-cost Ink Project) and COLAE (Commercialising Organic and Large Area Electronics) have provided support in terms of materials and supply chains. Collaborations with the likes of EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) and CIMLAE (Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Large-Area Electronics) in the United Kingdom enable this to move forwards, addressing topics such as design for manufacture, high-throughput testing and system integration.

Similar initiatives exist in other geographical areas, notably Japan and South Korea. For example KoPEA (Korean Printed Electronics Association) has created a value chain for printed electronics by bringing together some of the country's major companies and smaller companies from around the world.

The role of International Standards

Standardization helps accelerate the broad roll out of printed electronics. Both the IPC in the US and JEITA (Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association) have been involved in standardization activities and members of both organizations (and IPC through a formal liaison) now participate in IEC TC 119. Organizations such as these also support TC 119 work through the organization of technical events.

The 1st Plenary meeting of IEC TC 119 was held in Korea and KoPEA held a local conference in association with the event. The 2nd Plenary was hosted by IPC while the 3rd, held in the UK, received significant support from KTN (The Knowledge Transfer Network), a government funded organization. In addition to providing the logistics for the Plenary meeting, KTN organized a one day conference, "Manufacturing for Printed Electronics", and networking dinner event. JEITA will organize a similar day in association with the 4th Plenary at the IEC General Meeting in November 2014.

Progress within IEC TC 119

IEC TC 119 was established in 2011 and, guided by its Strategic Business Plan, continues to support the quest for the broad industrialization of printed electronics. The work therefore closely mirrors the route described above. Here are a few examples:

  • IEC TC 119 has now brought together a community of over 70 experts from 13 participating and 8 observer countries, spread across the value chain. As would be expected at this stage in industrialization, members strongly represent the supply side of this chain with a healthy contingent coming from the printing industry
  • Cyprus, South Africa and Switzerland recently joined the TC 119 community, reflecting the widening reach of the technology and its applications
  • TC 119 has healthy interactions with other standards groups. In addition to the external liaisons it also receives input from members of other standards groups within both IEC and ISO. This is seen as particularly important for a technology with the potential to be as pervasive as printed electronics. Anyone with an interest in printed electronics is invited to interact with TC 119
  • TC 119 experts do not only cooperate during formal IEC meetings. Many also meet up informally at technical conferences and trade shows throughout the year. This allows for discussions around applications to continue with a widening community
  • The topics for standardization closely match the interests and needs of industry. Printed electronics began with significant investment being made in materials science, resulting in the production of new inks and substrates for this market. The focus then turned to addressing manufacturing needs in the form of equipment and product quality. Progress within IEC TC 119 has mirrored these developments.

TC 119 experts invite you to come and interact with them. Our next meeting will be held at the IEC General Meeting in Tokyo. We look forward to seeing you there.

Flexible electronic components can be printed Flexible electronic components can be printed
Roll to roll printing allows the production of large volumes of electronic components at very low cost (PolyIC press picture) Roll to roll printing allows the production of large volumes of electronic components at very low cost (PolyIC press picture)
Circuit boards being printed (Photo: California Polytechnic State University) Circuit boards being printed (Photo: California Polytechnic State University)