Paul van Gerven
22 June

With the value chain all lined up, the Brainport area is ready to take printed electronics to the next level – both commercially and technologically.

More and more questions being asked about printed electronics are about compliance with regulations or safety standards, says Corné Rentrop of Eindhoven-based research institute Holst Centre. “This is a clear indication that the technology, at least for a number of applications, is no longer the main hurdle. Indeed, companies are looking at how to actually use it. The adoption of printed electronics has definitely entered a new phase.”

Rentrop is the technical project leader of the regional OPZuid Printed Electronics project, which is just about to wrap up. The goal of the project was to accelerate the industrial maturation of printed electronics in the south of the Netherlands, also known as the Brainport region, by bringing together all parts of the value chain to form a well-oiled ecosystem (see inset “The OPZuid Printed Electronics project”). Additionally, 14 demonstration projects were initiated to explore and expand the applicability of the technology.

Holst printed electronics 1
Credit: Holst Centre

“Printed-electronics activities can be found in plenty of regions around the world. But, to the best of my knowledge, the Brainport is the only one that features the entire value chain so closely packed together. We have manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, materials suppliers, end-users and research institutes,” says Rentrop. Having lined up the ecosystem through the OPZuid project, he believes the Brainport is well-positioned to become the focal point of a new industry.

Pelvic floor

Printed electronics has a long history in the south of the Netherlands. Already in the 90s, Philips Research had people working on the technology, which was predicted to have two main advantages. One: printing is a simpler, more efficient and less costly process than etching/lithographic procedures. And two: electronics can be printed on non-traditional substrates, including thin and lightweight substrates, allowing for flexible or even stretchable form factors.

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It has been a long journey, but these advantages are currently being commercially exploited in the Brainport region. Rentrop: “There are two main areas of activity. One is the set of applications in which the flexibility enables applications that aren’t feasible with traditional electronics, or only at high cost. For example, Dutch company Ato Gear has embedded pressure sensors in an insole to measure running techniques. This information can be used to enhance performance and reduce the risk of injury. Clearly, it wouldn’t be very comfortable running with rigid pieces of electronics in your shoes.”

“Also a good example is Lifesense from Eindhoven, which has developed a product to help women with involuntary urine loss. Its ‘smart underwear’ pairs with a wearable sensor and tracking app to create a tailored pelvic floor exercise program designed to eliminate leaks.”

Another major application area of printed electronics is in packaging, Rentrop continues. “Printed electronics can easily be integrated into packaging, either during production or afterward as an e-label. There are countless applications for that, ranging from improved logistics through RFID labeling to medication packaging with built-in temperature and humidity sensing to monitor whether drugs are being stored correctly, for example.” The OPZuid project had a packaging specialist on board that’s interested in applying printed electronics: Faes Cases from Reusel, near Eindhoven.

Landfills

Still, Rentrop admits, printed electronics has some way to go. “For many applications, all the necessary building blocks are available. It’s a matter of entrepreneurs embracing the technology. That’s to a significant degree a matter of awareness: companies in different end markets simply aren’t in the know. I’m certain that many of the possibilities of printed electronics are, for the time being, left untapped.”

“The electronic-design community generally isn’t very familiar with printed electronics either. In my experience, engineers either don’t know much about it at all, or they do know it but don’t realize how far the technology has evolved by now. Perhaps that’s because many associate printed electronics with very simple functionality. But it’s possible to combine printed circuits and devices with traditional electronic components like LEDs and chips while retaining the advantages of the former.”

Holst printed electronics 2
Credit: Holst Centre

“Of course, we want to be able to print as many functions as possible. The research to do that will continue, along with reducing material use, printing more compact structures and increasing performance. Some functionality will remain dependent on traditional electronics, though. I think that, eventually, printed electronics will be part of every electronic-design engineer’s toolkit. Every time a new design is started, the first question will be: do I use a rigid PCB or will I go the printed electronics route?”

In addition to improved awareness, sustainability could potentially accelerate the adoption of printed electronics as well, explains Rentrop. “Manufacturing a circuit by litho-and-etch is always going to generate more waste than by printing it, which deposits the exact amount of material exactly where it’s needed. Additionally, electronic waste is a significant and growing problem. Only a small part of the e-waste is being recycled, the rest ends up in landfills or incinerators. That’s partly because it’s hard to recycle. Printed electronics, with its choice of substrates, will likely offer easier options for recycling.”

And, finally, the printed-electronics palette will keep expanding. Beyond flexibility, for example, there’s stretchability, which brings on a whole new set of applications. In-mold electronics can add intelligence and interfaces to everyday objects by providing a way to structurally integrate printed electronics into 3D-shaped objects. Rentrop’s personal favorite, though, is 3D printed electronics. “Combining structural and electronic manufacturing would give almost complete design freedom,” beams Rentrop.