Disruptive printing

Printed electronics is a relatively new transformational technology

By Morand Fachot

Printed electronics is set to revolutionize the electronics industry and many other domains. It will prove a disruptive, yet creative process that will allow the production of new low-cost electronic devices. Equipment, substrates and printing processes are already widely available. An IEC TC was set up in 2011 to prepare International Standards in the field of printed electronics.

Printed electronic component Printed electronic component

The new printing revolution

Printing is no longer just about reproducing text and images with ink on paper or another support. 3D printing, rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing, as it is often called, has seen the creation of various objects by adding successive layers of materials to create a product.

Another form of 3D-related printing, PE (printed electronics), is fast emerging and set to revolutionize many industrial applications. It consists in the creation of electronic devices and components using various printing methods, equipment and material.

This technology makes it possible to produce a wide variety of products that can be used in countless applications. It has other advantages, such as much lower production costs than for conventional electronics and it can be applied to flexible or rigid supports (or substrates).

Wide range of materials

PE transforms the way electronic devices are made and employed. Using materials (inks and substrates) that have conducting, semiconducting, non-conducting, electroluminescent, PV or other properties, and different printing methods (e.g. lithography, inkjet, or screen printing,) allows great design flexibility and possibilities.

Both inorganic and organic materials are used for printed electronics. Organic materials can be found in products such as OLED (organic light-emitting diodes) displays used in televisions sets, computer monitors or mobile phones, and OPVC (organic PV cells).

Innovative materials such as carbon nanotubes allow new or enhanced applications for batteries, new types of solar cells, ultracapacitors and electrical circuits.

Engineers throughout the world use printed electronics to design a variety of components and products, such as TFT (thin film transistor), flexible displays that can be unfolded to make up a large television, PV (photovoltaic) cells that fit windows or the roofs of cars or innovative and energy-efficient lighting solutions.

In the short- and medium term, hybrid systems – combining printed, flexible electronics with building blocks containing classical (silicon) electronics will be introduced.

Multiple applications

PE are already widely used in RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on product packaging to protect against shoplifting and to identify items during transport. They are also used in the production of flexible electronic circuits which are widespread in products where space constraints are significant, such as in small consumer electronics devices (i.e. digital cameras, mobile phones).

Technologies are being developed that make it possible to print electronic components, such as sensors, transistors, light-emitters, smart tags and labels, flexible batteries to power flexible and printed electronics, memory, etc.

New printed electronics applications are emerging opening up possibilities not envisaged before. One such application is in the domain of printed batteries. US scientist have recently printed a lithium-ion battery the size of a grain of sand that could one day power tiny medical implants as well as other micro electronic devices.

From research to industrial design and to marketable products

New technologies in the printed electronics domain are emerging all the time, many are still at the research stage or under development and not ready for commercialization yet.

However, printed electronics are being found in more and more mass-produced items, in particular in the automotive, consumer electronics and pharmaceutical industries, as well as in packaging where smart labels can provide item-level tracking of quality data for goods such as pharmaceuticals and perishable food.

  • Lighting, including both OLED and electroluminescent (EL) products)
  • Organic PV
  • Flexible displays
  • Electronics and components, including RFID, memories, batteries and other components
  • ISS (integrated smart systems) that include smart objects, sensors like MEMS (micro electro mechanical system) and smart textiles.

IEC contribution

The 5 areas that see widespread use of printed electronics are already covered by several IEC TCs (Technical Committees). However, printed electronics industry experts stressed, at their regular trade meetings and events, a need for standardization in a number of PE-specific areas. These include terminology, materials, processes, equipments, products as well as health, safety and environment issues. As a result of this need the IEC’s SMB (Standardization Management Board) decided to create TC 119 to prepare standardization work in the field of printed electronics. TC 119 was established in October 2011. It has 11 participating members and 7 observer members. Given the rapid growth of the PE industry in recent years and its prospects in the future the obvious need for PE standardization points to a very dynamic future for TC 119.

Printed electronic component Printed electronic component
Carbon nanotubes are used to make printed electronic products Carbon nanotubes are used to make printed electronic products
Printed photovoltaic panel (Photo: Solamet) Printed photovoltaic panel (Photo: Solamet)