Asia Next Frontier for Flexible Electronics Manufacturing Equipment

Over 100 organizations supply equipment or consumables to enable manufacturing of flexible or printed electronics. The majority of these organizations are based in Europe, followed by a roughly even share of U.S. and Asian-based companies combined. Within Europe, Germany is home to more equipment makers than other European countries. But as European funding saturates, the market is turning toward Asia for sales of flexible and printed electronics manufacturing equipment.

The Flexible & Printed Electronics Value Chain

While initially the printed, organic and flexible electronics industry was driven by significant investment and technological development from the fine chemicals industry, the equipment sector followed soon after. Those involved in screen printing and screen printing consumables have had the largest market so far in printed electronics given that the equipment is used in commercial products, such as solar cells and glucose test strips.

For more emerging printed electronics processes, such as inkjet printing, specialist coating systems applied to printed electronics, gravure, and flexo, the market has been smaller but quickly growing. Predominately, most of the sales of such systems have been to Europe. This has been due to a high and consistent level of funding made available from European funding sources in addition to country-specific funding programs.

The graphic below illustrates how this looks:

The Flexible & Printed Electronics Value Chain

Source: IDTechEx report Printing Equipment for Printed Electronics 2015-2025

Printed electronics is, in most European countries, a relatively high prioritization category for funding. Many of the funding sources have found that one of the most useful things to kick-start the industry in Europe would be to make equipment available so that people can develop, prototype, pilot, and even make small quantities of their product without the need for them to buy their own equipment ― which is capital intensive and high risk since development still has to occur.

As a result, many printed electronics centers have been created, as shown in the image below. The light green markers show centers that are in the process of being set up; the darker green are more established centers. Some markers represent numerous centers.

European Government Funding for Equipment Declines

However, current equipment demand has mostly been met for the government-funded programs. Companies engaged outside of the government-funded projects, of course, are buying equipment ― but the main funding until now has come from governments. For equipment supply companies, many of which have enjoyed a good profitable period with top line sales growth, there is now a void as European companies' appetite for equipment lags behind that of government funded programs.

The U.S. equipment market has seen steady growth but until now has not been as big a market as it is in Europe due lack of government funding. This has changed, however, as evidenced by the recently announced $75 million funding for a printed electronics manufacturing hub ― but still it is one project, compared to Europe's multiple ventures.

Therefore, we find that equipment makers are turning to Asia. There is an impending transition from equipment for development and prototyping purposes to buying equipment for higher volume manufacture. Here, the equipment focus is different: It is not about making state- of-the-art transistors using printing, but doing simpler things, reliably, that can be used in commercial products today. For example, using inkjet printers for the polymer planarization layers for barriers on  organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) or printing the bezel edge electrodes for touch screens (often which are then patterned with a laser). We're also seeing an increase in new collaborations in Asia, such as the recent announcement between Foxconn and Cima Nanotech for large touchscreens. So now the wave of new flexible and printed electronics capability truly becomes applied to product, with equipment companies sending their salespeople out to Asia.

Learn more at the Printed Electronics USA 2015 event, which is being held November 18 and 19 in Santa Clara, Calif.  

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