The conductive ink industry is still in search of the next big thing. Adverse competitive pressures in core volume markets has led most suppliers to seek new opportunities. The prevalent strategy is now to have as broad a product portfolio as possible, seeding multiple nascent markets, garnering as much customer feedback as possible and establishing value networks early on.
Author: Dr Khasha Ghaffarzade, Research Director, IDTechEx
Suppliers also now intensely watch one another, rapidly launching comparable products which results in an erosion of differentiation. This puts suppliers in a bind: one the one hand, they want to keep technologies secret for long to perfect them in-house, but, on the other hand, they must take it to the market early because they crave customer feedback in new markets where neither the figures-of-merit nor customer needs are well known.
Despite all this, the industry has identified multiple emerging applications areas in the 2013-2016 period as it seeks to rejuvenate itself. It is now therefore on the follow-through phase on many fronts. In this article, we will briefly outline the progress in multiple emerging sectors whilst also identifying the latest trendy nascent application areas. Note that the applications are listed in no particular order of importance.
To learn the details about the conductive ink industry including all the latest technologies as well as assessment of more than 24 existing and emerging applications refer to our report on Conductive Ink Markets 2017-2027: Forecasts, Technologies, Players. This report is the most up-to-date version of our authoritative and comprehensive report which has become the industry reference.
Photovoltaics (PV): The PV industry will remain the main volume/revenue driver for firing-type pastes. The industry will not free itself of its long-term trends: low costs per kg and incremental innovation to lower silver consumption per wafer. Overall, we expect 2017 to be the year that will witness a first half boom thanks to the expected end in feed-in-tariffs in China; the year when the trend towards a diversified powder supply base will continue although the dominance of Japanese maker(s) will not be broken; and the year when the announced $140bn Chinese investment in the solar industry will dispel worries of another bust cycle.
Touch screen edge electronics: This industry is driven by cost and the pressure to narrow the bezel. This industry, in the past two years, experienced a step change as photo-curable and laser-cut inks started to replace standard Polymer Thick Films (PTFs) to enable 20um or below Linewidth-over-Spacing (L/S) ratios. These trends will continue and the competition between etching and printing solutions will further intensify. Overall, we expect that 2017 will be the year when the supplier catch-up on photo-curable and laser-cut will be complete, leading to loss of margin all around, and the year when new processes beyond screen printing are taken more seriously.
In-Mold Electronics (IME): The behind-the-scenes interest in IME remains robust. The first wave of products are close to market launch, the value networks are being enhanced, volume manufacturers are more engaged than ever, and the material set is transitioning beyond conductive inks to include transparent conductive films, sensors, actuators, and so on. Overall, we expect 2017 to the year when IME applications finally grow after years of on and off starts.
EMI shielding: EMI shielding is emerging as new area of interest. The number of chips with direct EMI shielding protection are expected to rapidly increase in the coming years. The competition will be between sputtering and ink spraying, and within inks the competition will be on particle size with nano inks offering thinness whilst others offer lower costs. Overall, we expect 2017 to be the year when the suppliers gather more knowledge about the market need, establish potential customer relationships, and start various new qualification processes.
Electronic textile (e-textiles): The number of stretchable pastes on the market or in the late-stage prototyping phase is on the rise. Two years or so ago only a few suppliers offered such inks but now many have demonstrated capability. The e-textile value chain is still weak, prices still too high and inks generally face competition from alternative solutions such as conductive yarns. Overall, we expect 2017 to be the year when further ink-based e-textile products are launched; the year when volumes remain small; and the year when the e-textile industry as whole inches closer to major success stories.
Conformable printing: Aerosol and other non-contact printing processes are now a major contender for printing antennas and other conductive traces on 3D objects. The production capacity now exists in the industry, particularly in Asia. Many material suppliers have also qualified their products with these process although end users still tell us that most over-promise and under-deliver particularly in terms of conductivity levels at low temperature annealing. Overall, we expect 2017 will be the year of further incremental material improvements and increased volume sales despite potential challenges in end consumer electronics markets.
Printed transparent conductive films: Technological improvements are on the cusp of enabling high-performance printed metal mesh films with linewidths below 5um. These developments are still in the pilot phase with narrow web sizes or high costs, but nonetheless represent a long-term risk to other metal mesh processes in an increasingly cost-sensitive industry. Several silver nanoparticle TCF technologies have lost commercial momentum due to company bankruptcies and cash flow issues, but new novel ones are emerging to take their place. Overall, we expect 2017 to be the year when printed metal mesh solutions progress along the technology maturity ladder but will not make a commercial impact.
Automotive: The automotive industry will remain an attractive market for paste suppliers with long-term predictable revenue lines. Applications such as printed seat occupancy sensors, printed capacitive sensors for infotainments modules, or seat heaters will largely continue their progress. The efforts to develop and commercially printed window de-frosters on polycarbonate substrate will intensify. Overall, we also expect 2017 to be the year when IME applications for automotive interiors will be announced and the year when printed metal mesh for window de-frosters will appear on the early-stage technology roadmaps of major OEMs.
Stretchable inks beyond electronic textiles: Stretchable inks can also be used in applications beyond e-textiles such as flexible/stretchable circuit boards or medical devices. In flexible, highly pliable or stretchable circuits, printed circuits can deliver functionality although they can still suffer from the usual shortcomings of limited conductivity, pitch resolution and solderability. In medical devices, particularly when long and stretchy interconnects are required for use convenience, printed lines may have an advantage. Overall, we expect 2017 to be the year when existing non-printed FPCBs will continue to dominate.
3D Printed Electronics (3DPE): We identified 3DPE as an innovation opportunity front in the conductive ink area. The idea behind 3DPE is to combine 3D printing of plastics with printing of conductive inks to create customised 3D shapes with embedded circuitry. This will enable the design and 3D printing of 'smart' objects. The opportunity for innovation is in establishing lower conductivity inks and good adhesion to a variety of plastic substrates. Overall, we expect 2017 to be the year when we see more 3DPE equipment introduced to the market and the year when we see the announcement of ink products aimed specifically at this market.
Printed PCB: Actually printed PCBs received renewed interest in 2016. This was thanks to the increased efforts around inkjet-printed single-, double- and multi-layered PCBs aimed both at the hobbyist and professional ends of the market. The use of the print-and-plate approach in making PCBs is also still being fine-tuned by many companies, mostly in Japan and Korea. The technology is more mature than before but the cost advantages are not yet enough to make it a compelling alternative to the more mature, more reliable and higher volume incumbent technology. Overall, we expect 2017 to be the year when the hype around the hobbyist/DIY PCB printers will calm down, whilst professional multi-layer PCB printers will continue their slow and small-scale market penetration. The technology progress on print-and-plate will also continue in the background, largely in Asian labs, without notable commercial launches.
Printed transistors and memory: Printed transistor and memory are, in some ways, an old application idea. Printed transistors have failed to deliver on their promises. Now, however, the technology progress, particularly from Japan, is promising enough to rekindle interest in the topic. Here, fine printing of narrow lines will be required. Printed memory has also been in the semi-commercial production for years and now the issues around yield are better addressed. Overall, we expect 2017 to be the year when the search for unique applications of printed transistors and memory continues, and the year when ink suppliers become more engaged with printers to better customise their offerings.
Large-area LED lighting arrays: The commercial activity around printing large-area LED arrays is beginning to pick up. The technology base had been in the making for the past 4-5 years. Now there is more end user interest and more creative effort by companies higher up the chain than material suppliers. The technology requirements are simple, but non-printed solutions are also mounting a challenge based on high conductivity and lower power consumption. Therefore, overall, we expect 2017 to be the year when sales increase in this year albeit from a very small base.
There are numerous other applications that are being developed for conductive paste which we consider in our report in detail. Examples include large-area sensing arrays/systems, battery pack and plant heaters and frequency-selective windows.