Flexible Hybrid Electronics Offers the Best of Both Approaches, Says IDTechEx

Author: Dr Matthew Dyson, Principal Technology Analyst at IDTechEx

Can electronics be additively manufactured and flexible without compromising on the capabilities of conventionally produced integrated circuits (ICs)? Often described as ‘print what you can, place what you can’t’, flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) offers an enticing blend of capabilities, enabling rapid prototyping, flexibility/stretchability, and roll-to-roll manufacturing of circuits with conventional ICs. Furthermore, this manufacturing methodology is moving out of research labs and into commercial production, with new and existing contract manufacturers now offering FHE.

IDTechEx’s report “Flexible Hybrid Electronics 2024-2034” evaluates the status and prospects of FHE circuits, which we forecast to reach a market size of around US$1.8 billion by 2034 – more if the associated infrastructure, software, and services are included. Drawing on years of following the printed electronics industry and 40 interview-based company profiles, the report outlines trends and innovations in the materials, components, and manufacturing methods required. It explores the application sectors where FHE is most likely to be adopted, drawing on both current activity and an evaluation of FHE’s value proposition. Granular market forecasts break down the opportunities for FHE circuits across 5 application sectors (automotive, consumer goods, energy, healthcare/wellness, and infrastructure/buildings/industrial) into 39 specific opportunities, such as skin temperature sensors and printed RFID tags.

Enabling Technologies

Manufacturing FHE circuits requires many current and developing emerging technologies that are essential to circuits. These include:

  • Low-cost thermally stabilized PET substrates that are dimensionally stable.
  • Component attachment materials compatible with flexible thermally fragile substrates, such as low-temperature solder and field-aligned anisotropic conductive adhesives.
  • Flexible integrated circuits based on both thinned Si and metal oxides.
  • Conductive inks based on both silver and copper.
  • Thin film batteries, especially if printable.
  • Printed sensors of all types.
  • Manufacturing methods for mounting components on flexible substrates.

 

Inputs, assembly, and applications for FHE circuits. Source: IDTechEx

Inputs, assembly, and applications for FHE circuits. Source: IDTechEx

The IDTechEx report assesses the status and prospects of each technology in detail, with recent developments and technological gaps highlighted and the merits of different approaches compared. This analysis is based on interviews with many suppliers and annual attendance at multiple printed/flexible electronics conferences. Furthermore, we profile 6 government research centers and a range of collaborative projects from around the world that support the adoption of flexible hybrid electronics, demonstrating the major players and technological themes.

Assessing Application Opportunities

With so many potential addressable markets, establishing where FHE offers the most compelling value proposition relative to alternative electronics manufacturing approaches is essential. As a manufacturing methodology rather than a specific product, the benefits of using FHE are highly dependent on the application.

For prototyping and high mix low volume production, printing with digital methods such as inkjet rather than chemically etching the conductive traces enables straightforward adjustments to design parameters. This brings multiple benefits, including shortening the product development process by reducing the time between design iterations and facilitating product ‘versioning’ to meet specific customer requirements without substantially increasing production costs.

Alternatively, for very high-volume applications such as RFID tags, smart packaging, and even large-area lighting, the compatibility of FHE with high throughput roll-to-roll (R2R) manufacturing via rotary printing methods such as flexography and gravure offer the potential for reduced costs. Rapid production can be expedited by low-temperature and/or high-speed component attachment methods, with competing approaches analyzed in detail within the report.

Flexibility and stretchability, of course, also form part of FHE’s value proposition. While conventionally manufactured flexible PCBs already meet some application requirements, such as for making electrical connections in confined spaces, the resilience of many printed conductive inks to repeated bending and tighter curvatures offers a clear differentiator. FHE is thus well suited for wearable applications such as electronic skin patches and applications where conformality is enabled by stretchability, such as integrated lighting.

Comprehensive Insight

IDTechEx has been researching developments in the printed and flexible electronics market for well over a decade. Since then, we have stayed close to technical and commercial developments, interviewing key players worldwide, annually attending conferences such as FLEX and LOPEC, delivering multiple consulting projects, and running classes/ workshops on the topic. “Flexible Hybrid Electronics 2024-2034” utilizes this experience and expertise to summarize IDTechEx’s knowledge and insight across the compelling and rapidly emerging manufacturing methodology of FHE.

To find out more about this new IDTechEx report, including downloadable sample pages, please visit www.IDTechEx.com/FlexElec.

Upcoming Free-to-Attend Webinar

Flexible Hybrid Electronics: The Best of Both Worlds?

Dr Dyson, Principal Technology Analyst at IDTechEx and author of this article, will be presenting a free-to-attend webinar on the topic on Thursday 17 August 2023Flexible Hybrid Electronics: The Best of Both Worlds?.

This webinar will discuss the following topics:

  • An introduction to FHE, including motivating factors
  • Discussion of recent innovations and commercial developments within FHE
  • Identification of technological gaps and potential solutions
  • A roadmap for how the industry will develop, spanning both technologies and applications

Click here to find out more and register your place on one of our three sessions.