Printed electronics

The challenge of Systems Integration

By Dr Alan Hodgson, Chair IEC TC 119: Printed Electronics, Member IEC SG 10: Wearable Smart Devices

The IEC covers technologies at many phases of industrialization. Printed Electronics is still in the very early stages of introduction into industry – a good time to start the standardization process. IEC Technical Committee (TC) 119: Printed electronics, is a relatively new Technical Committee, created to lead the standardization effort. However, like many new technologies, printed electronics cannot make the transition into industry in isolation. The IEC configuration of TCs and liaison structures is poised to help facilitate this transition. One field in which printed electronics could make a significant contribution is that of wearable smart devices (WSDs).

GalenTran circuit
Printing electronic circuits on flexible and structured substrates allows multiple applications (Photo: California Polytechnic State University)

Recent activities

Over the last 3 years, IEC TC 119 has developed into a significant community, with membership across 21 countries and with over 100 accredited experts. A number of standardization projects are in progress, with the aim of producing a solid foundation of test methods to facilitate industrialization. In many cases the technology will produce printed components that will be integrated with other electrotechnical and material components to produce a physical manufactured product. In order to produce International Standards that reflect this reality, IEC TC 119 has embarked upon a series of liaisons with other TCs and external organizations.

A good example of this is the liaison with IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, since many of the resultant products will be hybrid devices, with both printed and conventional silicon-based components being integrated into one unit. Similarly, the liaison with IEC TC 110: Electronic display devices, is timely, as components for electronic displays are already being produced by printing, and printable materials for organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays are commercially available.

Taking the model into industry

The liaison model used by the IEC community is also of interest to industry, as systems integration across multiple horizontal technologies is seen as a significant challenge. Academic collaborators, together with their government and industrial sponsors, are seeking ways to access communities that can add value to individual technologies through integrating components upwards through the value chain. In early February, the liaison structure used within the IEC was presented as a model for systems integration at a conference on Large Area Electronics (innoLAE 2016). The proposition is to build upon an existing IEC community across various technology platforms, so gathering together the stakeholders needed to work on systems integration. The concept seems to be a strong one and worthy of testing on an industrialization project.

There may also be benefits beyond pure systems integration; once again an example from electronic display devices may help illustrate this. Some years ago an early implementation of printed displays was appearing at trade shows. It set high levels of customer expectation with what turned out to be an over-optimistic roadmap for systems integration into a product family. Obtaining a wider consensus from the various stakeholders in the systems integration process might have served to produce a more realistic technical appraisal of the technical challenges and a better setting for customer expectations.

Wearable Smart Devices

One topic of high interest to printed electronics is that of WSDs. This is a field that provides a very good illustration of a systems integration challenge that requires input from a substantial number of horizontal technologies.

WSDs can be categorized in a variety of classes, such as “in body”, “on body” and “near body”. Of particular interest to the field of printed electronics are flexible electronic components. One example of these would be electronics printed onto textile substrates that are flexible and/or stretchable, giving rise to flexible displays integrated into garments. These could then be integrated into conformable wearable devices that could fit into everyday life in a variety of implementations.

The IEC Standardization Management Board (SMB) has recognized the potential of Wearable Smart Devices and the wide number of IEC TCs that have stakes in the applicable technologies. The response in 2014 was to set up an ad hoc Group, ahG 56, to review pertinent activity in the IEC in this field and to identify the needs for further standardization. The ahG 56 report resulted in the decision to start a Strategy Group, SG 10: Wearable Smart Devices, with the intention to report back to the SMB on strategy options for standardization. SG 10 has been set up with the same liaison model as described above, with representation from semiconductor devices (TC 47), assembly (TC 119), applications (TC 62: Electrical equipment in medical practice, and TC 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment) and health, safety and environment issues (TC 77: Electromagnetic compatibility, TC 106: Methods for the assessment of electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields associated with human exposure, TC 108: Safety of electronic equipment within the field of audio/video, information technology and communication technology, and TC 111: Environmental standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems).

The health and safety aspect is of particular importance as the products will by definition be in close proximity to a human or animal. The substrates and functional materials employed must therefore of necessity be non-toxic and bio-compatible. As smart devices, they are likely to include some manner of wireless connection, so electromagnetic compatibility and safety are also important.

Even this simple overview serves to highlight some of the complex issues around systems integration, emphasizing the need for involvement of the multiple disciplines found in IEC TCs. The IEC is not the only organization looking at wearable smart devices standardization. ISO/IEC JTC 1/WG 10: Internet of Things, is also looking into this area. The challenge is to coordinate all these activities but the potential benefit in facilitating systems integration could certainly make the effort worthwhile.

The way forward

Printed electronics is ready for manufacture and integration with other technologies within the IEC family. There are significant challenges with systems integration and the knowledge available within the IEC community could be useful in helping with this.

Wearable smart devices are of current interest within the IEC family. There are similar systems integration challenges within this platform of technologies and printed electronics looks set to play its part in this.

These are both fields in which the collaboration activities across TCs could add value to industry.

GalenTran circuit Printing electronic circuits on flexible and structured substrates allows multiple applications (Photo: California Polytechnic State University)
Garmin-forerunner Printed electronics circuits have countless application in wearable devices, such as in activity trackers (Photo Garmin Ltd)