What do glucose test strips, RFID tags and E-book readers have in common? They’re all examples of the growing number of products relying on printed electronics technology. Similar to how an inkjet printer sprays ink onto paper, conductive inks made from new electronic materials, including conductive polymers, ion gels and semiconducting nanotubes, literally deposit circuits onto flexible materials such as plastic, paper and even flexible glass. As materials and processes improve, an almost unlimited number of applications are possible. Imagine wafer-thin displays printed right onto paper or flu medication packaging that measures a patient’s body temperature. In many cases, manufacturing companies are already working to make these technologies market-ready.
According to BCC Research, the global market for printed electronics neared $3.5 billion in 2011. And BCC estimates the market will be more than $12.6 billion by 2016, sporting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 29.4 percent over the next five years. A report by MarketsandMarkets forecasts even larger growth when combined with organics, predicting that the market for organic and printed electronics will increase by more than one hundred percent to around $25 billion USD by 2015.
With such significant growth predicted for the next several years, what kinds of technologies will this manufacturing process enable? How will it change our lives?
For sure, printing electronics onto flexible materials provide all sorts of possibilities, some of which are novel (a printed electronics Bluetooth-enabled, memory chip-embedded refrigerator magnet that places an order for your favorite pizza with the press of a button.) However, the same technology that makes it easier to order pizza just might change how the world’s devices receive power. Have you heard about energy harvesting?
Energy harvesting is simply a system of electronic devices that capture, store and transmit energy from the environment. Energy harvesting systems recycle ambient energy from many different sources, including solar, heat, mechanical vibrations, etc. And with the addition of printed flexible (and thin) batteries, the scavenged energy can be collected and stored for later use.
As manufacturers work to optimize flexible, thin, large-area devices at low cost and high throughput, the world becomes both an interface and an energy source. And yes, there’ll be new ways to order your favorite pizza.