Andy Pye examines the projected growth in 3D printed electronics and the impact this will have on the electronics and 3D printing markets.
In 2012, a tsunami of media hype began around consumer 3D printing that turned a lacklustre 30-year-old technology into a household name and created massive growth in the industry even among large established players. The same pattern of hype is about to repeat with the advent of consumer-level 3D printed electronics. This represents the collision of the multi-billion dollar markets for printed electronics and 3D printing. The impact this will have is detailed in a new IDTechEx Research report – From 2D to 3D Printed Electronics 2015-2025.
Printed electronics is a rapidly emerging technology, which uses conventional printing techniques to create electrical devices from thin, flexible materials. These low-cost devices are ideally suited to a range of diverse applications, from smart packaging to flexible building-integrated photovoltaics.
Affected markets include the $80bn PCB market and the $15bn antenna market. In many cases there are compelling reasons for industries to adopt 3D printed electronics over the next decade, ultimately leading to a forecast that the market for 3D printed electronics will be worth at least $1bn by 2026.
According to the report, new technologies are coming to market that span everything from traditional flat and rigid 2D printed circuit boards to fully 3D printed electronics. Existing consumer-level 3D printers can use several different kinds of conductive thermoplastics. Several Kickstarter projects are commercialising a variety of technologies that allow simple flat circuit boards to be created quickly and easily. One company is developing an equivalent technology for professional PCB prototyping. Several companies are competing for the mass production of antennas using different technologies to print on arbitrary 3D surfaces. A company called Voxel8 is bringing to market the first machine that allows highly conductive and insulating materials to be 3D printed in order to make objects that solve both mechanical and electrical challenges.
One of the main challenges facing the printed electronics industry is the sensitivity of components to their environment. Some components need to be fabricated and packaged in inert atmospheres containing as little as one part-per-million of oxygen and water.
Recognising the need among researchers and industry to test the stability of highly sensitive printed electronics components at very low concentrations of contamination, NPL’s Electrochemistry Group has developed the Portable Environmental Chamber. The chamber enables electrical and optical characterisation of components under atmospheric conditions which can be controlled with parts-per-million precision. The chamber has already been used extensively in NPL research programmes to test the performance of organic photovoltaics, which could be a cheaper, lightweight and flexible alternative to currently-used photovoltaic systems.
Now, the system is now commercially available and has been licensed to FOM Technologies, a Danish company which specialises in developing and supplying R&D equipment for coating and testing of functional printed materials. It has its roots in what was formerly known as Risø National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy, and which is now incorporated into the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). The company was formed, by former employees at DTU and partners from the printing industry, as a result of demand for products within polymer solar cell research.
Researchers from DTU Energy have provided significant results within roll coating and characterisation of polymer solar cells. The OPV research performed by Professor Frederik Krebs is widely known and his experience with roll coating, materials development and characterisation resulted in the development of a number of products, including instruments and tools like the Mini Roll Coater, the SameSun characterisation platform and the DTU OPV slot-die coating heads for roll-to-roll machines.