Printed Electronics Envisions a Market in the Billions


In search of perspectives for the future, the manufacture of storage instruments appears to present an increasingly interesting aspect for the printing industry’s service sector. New materials development, IT programming and the creation of new applications are closely interwoven. Reason enough for the founding of the “Organic Electronics Association (OE-A)”, which attracts representatives from across the IT spectrum to debate synergies and innovative solutions. For years, developments have been proceeding apace, as is now being confirmed by OE-A’s chairman, Wolfgang Mildner.

By Andrea Bötel

Mr. Mildner, you are chairman of the Organic Electronics Association (OE-A). What does it stand for and what are its strategic goals?
The OE-A* is a consortium within the VDMA*, figuring as international, industrial representative for this novel technology. Right now, we have grown to count more than 120 members worldwide, comprising the entire value creation chain and ranging from materials production, equipment, and manufacture to the individual user and the F&E organizations/universities. In cooperation with the entire value creation chain, the technological development and market build-out is accelerated. As the technology employs new materials and new production methods leading to new types of product, a close cooperation between experts and companies is imperative in finding the right path toward solutions.

Which are the hot topics the OE-A is dealing with at their international conferences and within its research groups?
The OE-A is among others concerned with the set-up of roadmaps to have all members be able to readily provide consistent answers as to when which products and applications will come to market. In the context, various technologies and materials will be evaluated. Joint developments for demonstration purposes show real-life examples of what is achievable. In the facts brochure of the OE-A, we publish articles of a general nature and examples (technology ‘giveaways’) to reinforce this matrix accordingly. The OE-A working groups also take an interest in the subjects of quality control, standardization and upscaling production.

What applications are we talking about?
The sectors for printed electronics are ranging far and wide; we are looking at displays (e.g., OLEDs), light generation, also energy creation (as battery or photovoltaic cells) all the way to circuit boards (e.g., for RFID) or sensors. The elements are conceptualized as either independent or in combination, like the so-called smart objects. At a conference OE-A is sponsoring (LOPE-C) in Frankfurt from 05/30/2010 to 06/02/2010, experts will meet to release the latest results and report on future opportunities.

Developments in the field of printed electronics continue unabated. How do you assess the technology’s potential?
Because of the manifold opportunities for applications, its potential really seems limitless. Market analysts project markets worth billions. Of course, what matters now is to create an opening and to take the first steps toward a market build-out, and this is best done by gaining experience through practical applications.

What exactly is being built in the sector of organic, printed electronics and how?
Many of the above-described areas of application have been created as lab prototypes. Beyond, printed batteries or sensors for glucose testing are examples of products in serial production. Flexible organic solar cells and displays of ‘electronic ink’ are also on the market. Those products are manufactured by using various mass imprinting, layering and lamination processes. Organic light diodes (OLEDs) are already used in displays, and the first OLED light fixtures are available; at this time, they are still produced by vacuum processing on glass substrates.
Printed data storage instruments and RFID tags, together with the entire technology are currently in transition to enter industrial production, for example by digital or even web-to-web printing.

Where can we find RFID or so-called smart objects like one-way sensors right now?
RFID with silicone electronics is already in wide use at this time, for instance in logistics. The tremendous potential for printed electronics will really come to the fore when it not only remains on the outside packaging but will also appear on the individual item due to economically enforced cost considerations and improved modes of integration. In particular areas (medical sensors) printed products number already in the billions.

Electronic books with organic control electronics, which in the future will make possible flexible displays or even such to be unrolled, is just another of those applications growing by leaps and bounds. Additionally, strong growth rates mid- and long-term are predicted for intelligent packaging combining sensors, battery, display, logic, and RFID.

To what extent can service providers in the printing industry benefit from the new opportunities?
All these aforementioned functions (displays, energy, light, clear-cut identification, interaction by integrated intelligence) can in the future be exploited through the printing industry. Specifically because of its ‘add-on’ usefulness, these functions will garner a great deal of interest from both clients and readers. The ideal time for market entry depends of course, as always, on the level of demand.

Will the “add-on metric” of print remain the preserve of label and packaging printing or do you believe in an expansion of the commercial printing market?
Examples in the periodicals space are evidence of how attractive “add-on” functionality can be in arousing the curiosity of the buyer; in this instance, I see no limit to opportunities.

Which technical and professional skills should a service provider bring to the table in order to effectively reach the customer and the market at large?
The answer to the question is predicated on the fact that here we have two worlds collide and thus the bar is set especially high for professional acumen and skill sets (e.g., in terms of IT). Without doubt, education and a continuing expansion of the knowledge base will prove crucial to fully take advantage of all the opportunities the market has to offer.

Which role do digital workflows and digital print technologies play?
I’d like to keep the two subjects separate. Digital workflow is a good and necessary exercise to efficiently balance production against capacity for the purpose of being able to react quickly. It is also an essential precondition for the implementation of additional functions.
Digital printing technologies today are used for the manufacture of printed electronics (e.g., by inkjet); in part they are well suited for it, yet whether they will achieve a genuine breakthrough remains to be seen.

To take a glimpse in the distant future—in your opinion, how extensively will printed electronics impact the business segments of entertainment, packaging or security technology?
The organic, printed electronics will undoubtedly enrich these business segments with its versatility and new features. The challenge is to intelligently combine conventional modes of operation with a judicious implementation of these new elements in order to revolutionize both the market and individual business sectors.

With the many opportunities, where do we bump against limits and what issues loom afar?
To define the principal hurdles is a significant component of the OE-A road map. To this end, we identified “red brick walls” for the various applications as well as technologies. The technology, and with it the entire industry, is still in its infancy, many materials, for example, are still at the development stage or fresh out of the labs; the same, incidentally, is valid for the methods of production chosen. That is to say, limits and issues will surface in time and be resolved by course corrections and different approaches. At this time, the challenge is to gather experience and push ahead with more development.

Mr. Mildner, we appreciate your time!

*The VDMA (Assoc. for German engineering and machinery construction) represents one of the most outstanding, consolidated service providers offering the largest industry network for investment goods in Europe

*The Organic and Printed Electronics Association was founded in December, 2004 as an international information and communications platform by companies and institutes actively engaged in the new technologies. More than 120 members from the Europe, the USA and Asia work together in OE-A to promote the growth of an efficient infrastructure facilitating the production of organic electronics. OE-A represents the entire value creation chain of organic electronics, beginning with materials producers to engineering concerns, manufacturers and end users.

*Wolfgang Mildner is the managing director of PolylC Ltd. & Co. He received his degree in Computer Science from Erlangen-Nuremberg University. Prior to the founding of PolylC, Mr. Mildner held since 1986 several positions at Siemens AG. He had responsibility for a number of projects with the goal of transitioning promising technologies into the creation of useful products. He is also the chief executive of the Association for Organic Electronics/VDMA

Printed electronics makes possible the manufacture of radio tag labels, so-called electronic product codes (EPC) replacing bar codes. It affords the monitoring of the logistics chain. It also enhances protection against brand piracy.

RFID tags are used in brand protection, touch-free service concepts, e.g., electronic coupons for the coffee machine or as admission to events, like pop concerts.
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