By Tim Congdon, European business development manager at CCL Design UK
The global printed electronics industry has expended rapidly and is set to grow by an estimated US$40bn from 2015 to 2024. This is a Stella Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 11 per cent.
Printed electronics have become so popular because they are now much more secure, flexible and cost-effective to produce. At the same time, they have paved the way for more flexible devices, which in turn, has driven demand. They’re also easy to integrate into new products.For instance, new-age medical sensors and diagnostic devices in the healthcare sector is just one example of an application that is increasing the global printed electronics market.
Across many industry sectors, smart packaging has also been developed with applications such as alarms and smart thermometers used in pharmaceutical and food products. A prominent example of this is where research has shown that one fifth of patients do not take their medication correctly – so devices have been developed so that integrated clocks and circuits can register tablet removal and provide reminders/guidance on when next to take the medication. At the same time, built-in temperature sensors can ensure the correct storage of drugs, or the correct transportation (and storage) of food.
In addition to smart pharmaceutical packaging, printed electronics are also increasingly being used in industrial control panels, medical instrumentation and various hand-held controls to name just a few. Printed Electronics are also finding their way into our home – with everything from kitchen appliances such as fridges, freezers and washing machines, to ‘home tech’ such as wearables, computers and phone accessories utilising both decorative and functional technologies.
Good examples of decorative functionality are simple back lighting, “hid till Lit”, layers providing capacitive touch capability, sensory no touch controls, imbedded NFC, printed batteries, and force touch.
With the search for smaller and more flexible solutions, more and more decorate finishes are being developed by using a mixture of technologies incorporating thin film metallisation mixed with micro fine resin moulding to give a metal finish or deep black or coloured mirror effect. The effects are endless but can include brushed steels, carbon fibre, wood grain. These can then be enhanced with either hidden or overt colours for logos, control icons, and visual information. Below this, layers of printed electronics can be added to provide back lighting, control linkages and rechargeable power supplies. Finally, specific adhesives can be applied to ensure flexibility and a durable mounting to the product.
At CCL we’ve worked with many customers on developing different forms of printed electronics, but a simple example which we recently worked on with a global manufacturer, was a requirement for a logo to be back lit when a product function was activated. This manufacturer approached us as they were experiencing issues and needed to discuss with us how we could resolve them. As the logo was positioned away from the main control board, light pipes had been used to connect the light source situated on the control board to the logo. This was causing two issues, a complex light pipe to the logo which was difficult to produce and costly. In addition, the light pipe was causing a light spot in the middle of the logo.
Our solution was quite different. To resolve both issues, we printed a logo using a localised LED with a defusing lens – this provided a smooth overall back light with an overall thickness of less than 1.5mm thickness. This solution also provided a mass manufacturing product which reduced overall production costs, and at the same time, it could be simply activated via the control board by routing two thin wires to the logo. It also provided a far crisper and superior effect to the logo enhancing the product aesthetics.
Before going into production, it’s a good idea to get some advice from an experienced manufacturer on the different decorative and functional features you may want to consider. For instance, printed electronics are often incorporated into a membrane keypad, as these are very popular will manufacturers because they can be designed as thin as 0.4mm, giving a more modern look than other keypads.
If your using a membrane keypad, your discussion should also incorporate factors such as saleability. For instance, an industrial product may also require very high levels of Ingress Protection (IP) – to avoid any intrusion from dirt and moisture.
There are many other factors to consider when blending both decorative and functional aspects into a product, and as the market is growing so rapidly, it is important to work with a manufacturer that has the capability to deliver the latest and most innovative solutions.