The demand for compact and lightweight electronic devices is fuelling the growth of the flexible electronics market. The key challenges facing the industry are developing new and effective power sources for wearables, creating user friendly designs, managing data from millions/billions of devices, and securing information. According to Lux Research, Google is partnering with Levi for smart textiles which incorporate elecronics. Lux further noted that fitness tracking and heartrate monitoring devices are just the earliest-use cases, and are already at the commodity stage. More can be done with better user interfaces including haptics and gesture control.
Printed and flexible electronics are beginning to penetrate multiple markets and automotive applications are an example, according to IDTechEx. The market research firm estimates 2016 sales of US$400 million rising to over US$1 billion in 2018. Key flexible electronics applications are de-foggers, displays, seat heaters, interior lighting, and consoles, in addition to a growing number of OLED-based displays in vehicles.
The future shift in healthcare – where hospitals will focus on acute care and the home will focus on disease management, prevention, and wellness – is dependent on wearable health monitors, based on new flexible sensors. Over the next five years, improved and available sensors will reduce the cost and footprint of wearable devices, thereby enabling continuous monitoring.
Singapore’s NUS is pouring $50 million into a new flexible electronics programme with a 20-year ‘road map’. One of the projects already under way is an ‘electronic skin’ embedded with tiny pressure sensors that take thousands of measurements a second, which could lead to sophisticated human-like robotic hands that can perform complex tasks. Diabetics who have lost the sense of touch in their feet could use flexible sensors filled with a liquid metal alloy to transmit pressure data wirelessly to a smartphone app. Hence the patient and doctor and patient can take preventive action against diabetic foot ulcers that develop due to excessive pressure.
NTU has also been making electronics stretchable and bendable so that they can be attached to skin and other movable surfaces. It has already made stretchable capacitors by giving them a zigzag shape that can shrink and expand like an accordion.
SUTD is working on a solar-powered textile made of thin wires coated with light-sensitive substances. Clothes made with the material are washable and can possibly power smartphones and military equipment, and have cooling capabilities.
(picture credit: Panasonic)