Age of Printed Electronics

For a few decades now, chips and other electronic components are chiefly made by lithography using silicon wafers as a substrate. In recent years, a new printing process has been developed that enables simpler circuits to be made in successive layers on a thin plastic sheet. Since this new method does not require clean rooms and other expensive fabrication facilities, it carries the promise to be the next electronic manufacturing revolution that further reduces costs. Besides, it increases the physical flexibility of the finished products because the plastic sheet can be easily bent or rolled as required (See San Jose Mercury News, Technology Page, dated 5/21/12).

Printed electronic manufacturing technology has already found its way into low-cost sensors, memory chips, and some interactive versions of board games. It has also found some success in photovoltaic solar cells and LED displays. One big potential is in shipping goods where the printed electronic sensor with memory is incorporated into the products in transit for tracking and monitoring purposes. For instance, the printed electronic sensor/memory can trace how much heat has a shipment of fruits been exposed to, and for how long and when. Another potential area is in health care where the sensor/memory can alert the caregiver about the conditions of the patient and the surrounding.

At this early stage, only a few simple components benefit from this low-cost printed process. As the technology advances, components of higher sophistication will be printed. In addition, this manufacturing process will extend to printing the circuits connecting those components. The cost will continue to fall as larger integration is achieved. According to some experts, the cost of printing a larger circuit will amount to only 2% of that using silicon as a substrate.

What will happen to existing chip manufacturing using lithography? The current silicon-based process is losing its cost advantage to the new printed process for low-end components. However, lithography is highly accurate for manufacturing very complex chips such as the Intel Pentium, or a crisp iPad display. The printed process is too young to be able to replace lithography, which has made tremendous technological leaps over the last few decades.

(May 2012)


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