Printed Electronics Update

Time:2016-01-20  Back

When people talk about PE opportunities, they almost always focus on new markets and how PE is an enabling technology that allows electronics to be added to just about any product out there. In fact, there are some who suggest that it’s possible to connect over a trillion products through the use of PE technologies, when they talk about The Internet of Things. It’s really astounding.Flextronics/Multek gave an interesting presentation about their efforts in PE. They’re moving quite quickly into materials, thanks to their acquisition of Sheldahl and their flex materials. And as I mentioned, they are already replacing PCBs with PE circuits.

PE for EMS

A few years ago, I invited Matt Timm, to keynote an IPC conference on printed electronics that I was emceeing.  a PE contract manufacturer: EMS for the PE industry. I had invited him to talk about the current status and prospects for the future. Timm spent a lot of time talking about the hype curve and how the industry was starting to come down the backside of the curve, which was the more realistic state of the industry. Still exciting, but the reality was that PE technologies were going to take longer than the pundits had been espousing. He was in the trenches and had a good perspective on things. Something he said to me offline, which I found quite interesting, was that his biggest concern with our industry was the giant EMS providers like Flex tronics who, when they figured out the opportunity, would eat his lunch. Well, I think they’re starting to do just that. It’s still a specialty market for them but it’s going to grow really fast. They already have the customers. Now, they just need to match the PE product with the right customer and application. The customers want it. On the EMS side, the opportunities are almost endless. They do everything needed for PE in-house, on their own, wherever the customer is located. They can mix and match conventional technologies with emerging PE options when and where needed. They’re in a great position to dominate this market in fairly short order.

PE for PCB

I ran into John Andresakis who, like me, has a keen interest in printed electronics. As we discussed some of the technologies and presentations we saw at the show, I suggested that we need an annual technical benchmark to show the progress of the PE materialsand capabilities as they relate to PCB technology. It would be important for the industry to know how rapidly the PE capabilities are advancing. Certainly, the most obvious target for PE is the flex circuit industry. Flex PCB suppliers are already selling their latest materials at PE shows. Lots of companies are selling materials into this market. Conductive inks are everywhere and they’re getting  better and better every year. It won’t be long before they perform like copper; then, watch out! Figure 1 is a slide from Technologies touting their “printed thru-hole vias.”  was a printing company that has made the jump into printed electronics. In a presentation the CEO caught my attention. Basically, he said that the closer they get to free (referring to the cost of their product, which is printed memory), the larger the market gets. I’ve heard these kinds of statements before, but the way he put it made a lot of sense to me. At a higher price point, the market is limited. The higher you go, the smaller the market. If you go high enough, you reach the costs of traditional electronics, which is the market we’re all very familiar with. I get all this. It’s logical and makes sense. Very few of our manufacturers are looking for ways to reduce the cost of their boards for their customers. Typically, we fight every price change and try to not leave any money on the table. The problem with that thinking is that it closes the door on a ton of potential that the  PE guys have grabbed hold of. That’s the way they think. Driving down cost as quickly as possible to expand the market makes a lot of sense to them. You could say that the Chinese, and in particular, Foxconn have also grabbed that concept by building boards and assemblies in an environment that allows them to dramatically reduce costs; this has opened up a much larger market for electronics than would have otherwise existed. Now, most of the world can afford electronic products, which were mainly sold in developed countries. As a result, all boats rise. More electronic gadgets require more electronic infrastructure, which creates more jobs which then provides more income and more buying power, etc. Now, PE takes this cost reduction to a whole new level. In just a few years everyone, everywhere, will have access to most of the technologies out there and printed electronics will make that happen. As I mentioned last month, in a recent assembly industry technology survey, printed electronics was the topic of greatest interest. Although not surprising to me, it does indicate that our industries are finally waking up. And as I said earlier, the EMS companies are in a prime position to leverage the capabilities of PE technologies for their customers. My biggest concern is with the PCB fabricators. There is both a great opportunity and an ultimate endgame for many. I’m not sure why there aren’t many more fabricators walking a show like IDtech. I only saw a few . Maybe I’m way off base, but I don’t think so.Post by PCB007

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