Where Does Technical Realism Get Us?
In Praise of Market Realism
A Semantic Digression
Market Realism and Flexible Electronics
Let's face it, printed electronics hasn't turned out the way we all hoped. Just a few years ago the market was talking itself into a frenzy--sharing fantasies of those majestic R2R fabs churning out organic RFID tags and display backplanes with the speed of the New York Times coming off the presses. Seems rather silly in retrospect.
The dirty little secret here is that technology revolutions always begin with more hype than substance and in the absence of market reality. During such giddy periods, forecasted growth rates that are anything less than high double digits are usually greeted with calls of skepticism. So even if the entire world economy hadn't decided to take a southward trend, printed electronics was fated to get a massive dose of reality.
And that massive dose of reality is now being force-fed to the market. If one accepts the traditional thick-film business, which is more like coating than printing and isn't usually counted as printed electronics anyway, the current status of printed electronics is distinctly niche-like. Our Google Alerts for both "printed electronics" and "printable electronics" never turn up much of interest these days--a few unimpressive corporate announcements here; a few academic projects there; a lot of discussion still about how to build. Unfortunately, this meager level of activity reveals that after years of talk, there is still not a lot to be excited about when it comes to PE.
What to do? A post mortem may conclude that most advocates of printed electronics knew/know little about printing and therefore had unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved and in what timeframe. Another conclusion is that it is easy to talk about what happens in the lab or to deliver Power Point slides and industry "conferences." But delivering products that people will pay for is what really counts. Technologies need applications to propel them into the mainstream.
However, the recognition that hubris, exuberance or naiveté in varying degrees have been involved here doesn't address the issues surrounding how we achieve something approaching legitimate industry status. Post mortems tell us where we have been, not where we are going.
Another response is to argue that if a lack of realism got us into this mess, it's high time that we applied some more realistic thinking to printed electronics. This thought was expressed in a recent industry press release, which made a plea for abandoning grand visions in favor of focusing on "finding the best way of doing things."
Finding a better way of doing things points us in the direction of successes and potential successes for printed electronics. Two examples spring to mind: the use of printed nanosilver to create fine traces in miniaturized PCBs and printing nanosilicon layers on silicon substrates to produce PV cells with improved performance. And, there are certainly plenty of other examples of where printing can be used effectively in electronics, where printing's unique ability to combine patterning and deposition along with low costs is appropriate to the task.
But, technical realism of this kind can also produce some pretty disappointing answers to the vital question as to how long we have to wait before printed electronics is more than just a collection of little projects in industrial laboratories and small tactical maneuvers on production lines. When will printed electronics become an industry?
At the end of the press release referred to above, comes one answer: ten years it says. One can almost hear the writers' sighs of resignation.
At NanoMarkets we see things very differently. First, we think that if we have to wait ten years for printed electronics to take off, then we are talking about an academic research program, not a commercial endeavor. This is fine, of course. But no venture capitalist or corporate investment committee is going to make a substantial investment in a technology that is a decade away from taking off. Nor will they buy a futuristic story of printed and organic electronics becoming a mega-industry in twenty years. At a time when tight credit, incipient inflation and continuing worries about the health of the global financial system are in play, long-term investment in risky technologies is a fool's game.
The other issue is that continuing to keep the conversation on the technical realism isn't enough. Market realism is what really needs to be embraced.
One implication of this shift is that we need to stop talking about "printed electronics," and instead find a name that is suggestive of functionality, one that customers may actually buy into; that is, a title that is market oriented in the same way that printed electronics is technical.
This little semantic exercise shouldn't be too hard to do, because "printed electronics" has always meant more than just printed electronics. It has typically been taken to include organic electronics and some newer forms of thin-film electronics. As a presenter at a recent industry gathering we attended put it, "when we say organic electronics, we also include printed electronics." This really makes no sense at the purely semantic level, but those of us who have watched the evolution of printed electronics know exactly what he meant.
Nonetheless, redefining printed electronics to include a particular class (or particular classes) of materials really isn't all that helpful either. "Use the best and most appropriate materials available" is still a technical prescription; it is an example, once again, of technical realism, not of market realism. The market doesn't care what materials you use any more than what fabrication equipment you use.
Where we think market realism is pointing us is toward terminology that emphasizes flexible electronics or plastic electronics, which we take to be (more or less) the same thing. There are four good reasons for thinking of the new electronics in this way.
First, "flexible" is a customer-oriented measure; it is something that customers either want or do not want in their products. No one spends (or will ever spend) much time thinking about printability or materials sets (say) when making a customer choice. You are not likely to hear, "Gee Jennifer, I was going to buy this wonderful new e-book reader, but then I realized that the backplane didn't use OTFTs and it wasn't even printed."
Secondly, there is some evidence that flexible electronics is something that customers actually want, and want now. While it is impossible to know what kinds of products will sell in advance of those products being produced and marketed, some very plausible arguments can be made for the commercial viability of flexible electronics products. A few examples: flexible displays add the possibility of consumers carrying around displays large enough to do justice to the capabilities of today's smart phones; flexible PV would be a powerful enabler of building integrated PV (BIPV), since most building products generally need to be flexible; low-cost, flexible transistors suggest a new generation of smart packaging with new levels of brand identification in an era in which brands are notoriously devalued by pirates and where packaging is generally itself flexible; and flexible OLED lighting, which provides novel ways for lighting firms to distinguish themselves in the marketplace. All of these possibilities have to do with features and functions that people might actually want, not technical achievements.
Of course, technical realism still has a role to play. Technical improvements will be required in all of the product areas listed above if they are ever to come to market successfully. We note, for example that flexible displays have proven very hard to produce in volume and that firms have died trying. But unlike a view that emphasizes mere technical realism, market realism puts marketable functionality and technical issues second.
Third, and this takes us back to the possibility of a 10-year timeframe before "printed electronics" really makes a big splash in dollar terms, one consequence of thinking of the new electronics in market realistic terms is that the focus is on getting products out there, not on technical excellence. This surely inspires shorter times to market, in and of itself. By way of example, consider the Amazon Kindle book reader, the early versions of which were a little fragile but which still managed to transform the book publishing industry. Good enough are the watchwords here.
Finally, consider the fact that our industry is looking for something to unify it. As we have seen, the "printed" moniker doesn't seem to work very well. And neither does a naming based on a particular material type. Most notably, "organic electronics" clearly leaves out much of what we need to cover in any reasonable definition of our space. However, "flexible electronics" is a term that is broader in scope and in addition its various parts and applications are melded together by key enabling technologies--flexible substrates and related encapsulation technologies.
Source: Time for a Dose of Market Realism in "Printed Electronics"
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