Image: Brewer Science
Flexible and printed electronics provide an excellent opportunity for applications that can change our lives. The interest in hybrid electronics, merging the advantages of silicon-based technologies with printing and other low-cost manufacturing processes, is helping to bring these new products closer to the mainstream.
Sensors are one of the areas where flexible hybrid electronics are making inroads. Glucose strips were an early market success, but sensors are now finding opportunities in more commercial and industrial areas, from medical, automotive and aerospace to cosmetics and packaging and much more. Manufacturers such as L’Oreal, General Electric and Boeing are using flexible electronics in their products.
“I would say there’s tremendous growth in both the number and diversity of applications for sensors – there are many applications in monitoring all sorts of things,” said Malcolm Thompson, executive director of NextFlex, America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics Institute.
The Internet of Things will eventually require billions of sensors, as monitoring temperature, humidity and other characteristics for perishable items such as food, pharmaceuticals, flowers and other goods ensures good quality and product authenticity. In February 2017, Gartner, Inc.forecasted that “8.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide in 2017, up 311% from 2016, and will reach 20.4 billion by 2020.” RFID is a key technology in this segment.
Among other commercial products that have used flexible and printed electronics solutions during the past year are wines and spirits, including Barbadillo and Astral Lights, which are communicating to customers through near-field communication (NFC). Wearables are another area where flexible and printed electronics technology is making gains.
OLED is an area that has long been seen as an opportunity for mass production (mobile phone antennas are already being printed). For example, Universal Display is investing $15 million in PPG’s Barberton, OH manufacturing facility, with an eye on to doubling commercial production of its UniversalPHOLED phosphorescent emitter products. Heliatek, a specialist in organic photovoltaics, is among the companies that has expanded its manufacturing operations during the past year.
With approximately $31 billion in sales in 2016, L’Oréal is one of the five largest beauty businesses in the world. Through the L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator and its R&D teams,
L’Oreal is always creating new products for the beauty market, including My UV Patch, a stretchable skin sensor that monitors UV absorption. In conjunction with La Roche-Posay,
L’Oreal’s skin care brand, and MC10 Inc., L’Oreal created the My UVPatch. Since the heart-shaped patch’s introduction, the company reports that more than one million patches have been sold.
“My team, L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator, developed My UV Patch, along with wearable technology company MC10, whose expertise in heath and biomedical adhesives informed the sensor’s ultrathin, stretchable adhesive,” said Guive Balooch, global VP of L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator. “L’Oréal skincare brand La Roche-Posay provides the patch for free with purchase of their sunscreen. My UV Patch unites innovative technology with L’Oréal’s extensive scientific research on skin and La Roche-Posay’s mission to increase consumers’ sun-safe behaviors.”
Being aware of the impact of sunlight on the skin is becoming increasing important. A patch is a good way to monitor the skin, but the key is to make it unobtrusive. Balooch said that L’Oreal did just that.
“We needed to create a wearable that wouldn’t interfere with the user’s daily routine – it had to be very comfortable, flexible and thin,” Balooch said. “Most wearables are accessories that you take off and on and some can’t be used for all activities. The challenge was to create a sensor that’s like a second skin, but also highly effective and accurate.”
Dr. Robert Smith, technical fellow and NextFlex Fellow, Boeing Research & Technology, said that Boeing Research and Technology has identified a number of application spaces that would benefit from sensors that are integrated with flexible and printed electronics.
“Boeing Research and Technology is focusing on the use of flexible sensors for factory operations, add-on sensors for enhanced data collection services and advanced health monitoring for products. From an engineering perspective, there is always interest in acquiring more data from platforms in operation or during test,” Dr. Smith added. “A constraint to collecting data is the distributed nature of gathering sensor data today, which requires access at physical locations; wiring for data, power and control; and large integration tasks to connect all the required assets that collect and process the data.
“With the emergence of flexible hybrid electronics, the possibility of integrating power, communication, processing and sensor capability onto a single flexible, conformal device becomes realizable,” Dr. Smith continued. “The constraint to achieving this realization is the availability of the types of sensors that can be produced by printed methods. Boeing Research and Technology sees this as a large growth area with a lot of untapped potential for new sensing architectures for data collection in new modalities and in size, weight and power efficient structures.”
Smart packaging ultimately will benefit from flexible and printed electronics. Roy Bjorlin, global commercial and strategic initiatives director, Electronics Materials, Sun Chemical, sees smart packaging as a way for brand owners and consumers to communicate, whether it is product information, coupons, games or other programs.
“We are now more connected digitally across the globe than we have ever been before through social media, mobile devices, wearables and more,” said Bjorlin. “Smart packaging can change the way retailers, brand owners and consumers interact with products by communicating, engaging customers, managing inventory systems and much more.”
Dominic Miranda, regional account manager for Brewer Science, said his company sees tremendous growth opportunities for flexible and printed sensors.
“Brewer Science’s InFlect line of sensors include flexible thermistors, moisture and bend sensors that are fast, lightweight, low-power solutions,” Miranda added. “These flexible sensors can conform to irregular surfaces, which enable sensing in areas previously not possible with conventional rigid sensors. Brewer Science is currently working on new air (gas/VOC) and water (pH/ion conductivity) for environmental monitoring.”
“The sheer diversity of sensor applications is staggering,” Thompson noted. “They must be inexpensive so they can be produced in large numbers, and they’re designed to be consumable – they essentially biodegrade, and then you start again, which makes for a great business model. Basically, the potential applications for sensors are practically limitless.”
Most Intriguing Printed Electronics Products of 2017
Flexible and printed electronics manufacturers made some interesting headway toward commercialization during 2017, with promising products either reaching the market or getting close.
Here is Printed Electronics Now’s list of five interesting technologies that have either reached the market or are nearing commercialization.
In alphabetical order:
Bosch – EcoSilence Drive Washing Machine
Bosch introduced its new EcoSilence Drive, which includes its ActiveWater Water Management system that saves electricity and water. It also offers an OLED touch screen that, among other functions, allows users to preset the time that the wash cycle begins.
Cartamundi – NFC-Enabled Game Cards
The goal of the PING (Printed Intelligent NFC Game Cards and Packaging) Consortium is to enable commercially viable production of smart printed objects through RFID. Cartamundi, the world leader in playing cards, is working with imec, PragmatIC, Smartrac, TNO and Van Genechten Packaging to develop these thin, flexible integrated circuits. PING received the Innovation Product Award from the European Forum for Electronics Components and Systems (EFECS 2017).
GE and Optomec – Strain Sensors for Turbine Blades
Maintaining turbine blades used in industrial gas turbines is an expensive process. General Electric (GE) now uses Optomec’s Aerosol Jet technology to print passive strain sensors made of a ceramic material directly onto the turbine blades. These sensors are used to detect fatigue and creep in the metal that could lead to costly, dangerous failures. Prior to its work with Optomec, GE would take out the blades every 7,500 hours; since Optomec started producing these sensors, GE has only had to replace one blade.
Information Mediary Corp. – Med-ic Syringe Pack
Information Mediary Corp. received the CPES2017 Product Innovation Award for its Med-ic Syringe Pack, which uses NFC to connect a temperature monitored smart package with printed electronic traces, which records real-time information for each syringe, providing data on whether a patient is actually using the medication. With more than a million units sold to date and new products on the way, including IMC’s Med-ic smart blister packs and syringe packs, IMC is poised to help improve the health of patients.
L’Oréal – My UV Patch
With approximately $31 billion in sales in 2016, L’Oréal is one of the five largest beauty businesses in the world. Through the L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator and its R&D teams, L’Oreal is always creating new products for the beauty market. One example is My UV Patch, a stretchable skin sensor that monitors UV absorption that L’Oreal developed in conjunction with La Roche-Posay, L’Oreal’s skin care brand, and MC10 Inc. Since the heart-shaped patch’s introduction, the company reports that more than one million patches have been sold.