Flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) is innovation and modern technology at their best, giving rise to lighter, more malleable sensors that better conform to the human body while breeding new applications across a number of markets. For the semiconductor industry, FHE technology is enabling the development of a new generation of chips with the high performance, light weight, scalability, softness and flexibility usually seen in printed electronics. The technology is a boon to chipmakers, giving them novel ways to innovate for the Internet of Things (IoT) market.
“The global printed electronics market is expected to garner 14.9% GAGR from 2018 to 2023,” said Stanley Wong, Director of Asia Business Development, Brewer Science, said in his presentation at FLEX Taiwan 2019 in late May. Representatives from industry, government, academia and research institutions gathered at the event in Taipei to explore flexible electronics innovation and growth opportunities.
One shining star of FHE innovation is the foldable smartphone. So bright is the future of the bendable devices that not even recent trade tensions between the United States and China have dimmed prospects for the fledgling industry.
“While the US-China trade war might slow down shipments of Huawei’s phones, the industry remains bullish on foldable phones,” said Stacy Wu, Principal Analyst at IHS Markit. “When the first generation of flexible AMOLED displays was launched in 2016, the rolling radius was 3mm and it could be folded 200,000 times.”
For foldable phones, the 200,000 mark was a major milestone – the industry’s consensus standard for foldable phone display reliability. The industry reasoned that phones capable of being folded and unfolded 200,000 times without distorting color or images or the display itself cracking was a safe bet for consumer adoption. Earlier this year, both Samsung and Huawei announced foldable phones using the thin-film-display technology, ushering in the era of mass-market availability of the devices.
Steve Chiu, Division Director for Electronics, IC package, Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), believes that breakthroughs in the next generation of flexible AMOLED technology will allow thin films to be folded 100,000 times with a rolling radius up to 30mm and electric resistivity of less than 10 percent. The rolling radius of 30mm, 10 times higher than today’s phones, will give foldables a higher bending radius, while the lower electric resistivity will help maintain the brightness of the AMOLED panel after tens of thousands usages and extend the service life of foldable smartphones.
The biggest challenge facing the foldable phone industry remains developing new materials that are flexible yet durable, stressed Francesco Lemmi, Business Development Director, Flexible Display, at DuPont. Today, the prevailing practice is to layer polyimide (PI) and hard coating on the display module. These stacked protective films replace traditional glass panels but present technical challenges related to impact resistance and the durability of the display as it is folded and unfolded over time.
Smart clothing market is another hot market, with 33 percent global growth annually and revenue expected to reach US$ 3.26 billion in 2026. Yet for all the promise of smart clothing, reliability and accuracy remain a big challenge chiefly due to a lack of industry standards. Another gap is the unanswered question of whether consumers will embrace light and energy-efficient products.
FLEX Taiwan 2019 speaker Satoshi Maeda of Toyobo is confident they will, pointing out that in the future consumers will enjoy a wide selection of comfortable smart clothing products and applications. The industry is still working to better understand how to develop human-machine interfaces, the essential seam between the human body (the outer layer of skin) and electronics, said Dr. Reinhold H. Dauskardt of Stanford University. Still, he sees great promise in an innovative somatosensory communications platform involving human skin.
Human-computer interactions have historically been defined by human touch and vision (for example, typing at a computer keyboard and checking our monitor for the accuracy of our inputs). Dauskardt believes that, in the future, electrical impulses from the skin (conductance) will interact with signals from electronic devices to establish a more intimate human-machine interface that could be adapted one day to extend the visual and auditory abilities of humans.
David M. Yeung, co-founder and CEO of Lionrock Batteries, pointed to another challenge in wearables: battery size. Today, large and heavy batteries account for 50 percent to 70 percent of the space in wearable devices, making many of the products too cumbersome to wear. Nanofiber lithium-ion batteries now under development can be as small as ultra-thin 2mm with a rolling radius of up to 20mm in radius and support for high electrical currents, significantly lightening their weight and improving comfort.
Nardev Ramanathan, Lead Analyst, Digital Health and Wellness at Lux Research, predicts that, of all flexible electronics products, smart watches will win the largest market share and with the fastest rate of adoption. The devices will get a boost when they shrink as flexible batteries are integrated with the bands. The next wave of smart wearables will feature devices for exercise or medical monitoring. Already, FHE materials have led to advances in medical devices. One example is that smaller hearing aids are now possible thanks to flexible electronics and dressings used to promote skin regeneration, reduce wrinkles and remove scars.
Gillian Ewers, VP Marketing at PragmatIC, sees fertile ground for FHE applications in IoT solutions. As FHE manufacturing costs drop, she believes IoT technologies will significantly deepen their penetration into a broad range of industries. For example, the number of electronic tags used in convenience stores worldwide will exceed 100 billion in 2025. Thinner than human hair and more durable than traditional wafers, these tags are expected to spawn a host of new business opportunities.
FLEX Taiwan attracted more than 270 attendees from more than 30 fields including smart healthcare, e-paper, displays, system integration, automotive electronics, textiles, wearables, and avionics. On the first day of the event, industry, academia and research center representatives from the United States, Japan, China, Singapore and Taiwan gathered to discuss common goals on a range of FHE-related issues and deepen cross-regional cooperation.
Like the FHE industry itself, SEMI-FlexTech remains focused on the future by strengthening cross-border cooperation to help manufacturers find killer applications and test profit-making models. For Taiwanese companies, the event will continue to provide insights on market trends, equipment, materials, advanced manufacturing technologies, product applications and new business opportunities, helping the organizations hone their competitive edge in the global market.
Emmy Yi is a marketing specialist at SEMI Taiwan.