Electronics Production | February 11, 2009

Printed Electronics is profitable

The older forms of printed electronics have been profitable for a long time. That includes printed conducting patterns such as membrane keyboards, RFID antennas and heated clothing.
Printed batteries are now getting traction, particularly now they are sold as complete solutions such as power storage for energy harvesting where the electronics is in the battery. Another successful flexible product based on a printed battery is the electronic skin patch supplied by the battery manufacturers. One supplier is selling twelve million yearly and is a few months from profit, for example. The printing of sensors for many types of medical test, recording pills taken and detecting tampering is often profitable and it is rapidly growing as a business.

Printed flexible displays exploiting alternating current (AC) electroluminescence have been profitable for decades. The news here is that recent availability of inks giving more vibrant colours, combined with more imaginative marketing, is opening up the probability of making profitable large businesses out of this flexible display technology rather than profitable small ones. On the other hand, electrophoretic displays are being adopted at breakneck speed, with about fifteen e-books launched in the last year and flexible then colour ones on the way. With this technology being incorporated in everything from radio controlled store pricing labels to wristwatches and e-posters, the leading supplier of the front planes - E-ink - looks set to be studied in management schools as the archetypal "how to do it right" in printed electronics.

That cannot be said of Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) displays, printed transistors and organic photovoltaics because they still have some technical challenges. However, they will be well placed for major launches timed with the end of the recession. True, the amount of venture capital being placed is reducing. In the UK it is already at half the level of 2000. However, PolyPhotonix has just raised 4.5 million British pounds to make OLED displays in the UK in collaboration with the Printed Electronics Technical Centre (PETEC) which has even larger funding. In Germany, Novaled has just raised 8.5 million Euros in its next round funding to develop the materials.

In the USA, many start-ups making the new flexible laminar batteries have raised sums varying from $3 to $15 million. For example, SOMARK Innovations Inc has raised venture funds from four organisations in February 2009. SOMARK is developing a printed electronic RFID tattoo for use as an animal identification system. Applications include laboratory animals to improve drug development processes and cattle for food supply safety. With the funding, SOMARK will open an R&D facility in San Diego in addition to its St. Louis location.

In Europe, the new printed and potentially printed photovoltaics continue to attract hundreds of millions of Euros of investment. The moral is that you can raise money against the trend if you have the right business proposition.


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