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Posted: May 9, 2008
Finnish research result: Future electronics will give more space for design
(Nanowerk News) In the future, the rigid electronic boards will not place restrictions in the design of new products, as the manufacturing technology is being developed towards more flexible, design-friendly and inexpensive form of electronics. New manufacturing methods will change the production processes and will enable the manufacturing of entirely new kinds of products. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland sees a bright future in printable and plastic-based electronics and is investing in the research in this area.
Major progress is being made in the fields of printed electronics and material research, which will allow the introduction of new electronics manufacturing methods and products. Electronic products that will differ substantially from the present in terms of their features will be launched to the markets within a few years. Future applications employing plastic-based electronics could include mobile phones and electronic appliances for home and for the automotive industry, in particular. By using integrated sensors, light sources and lightguides it is also possible to make new types of products for e.g. lighting and decoration. Electronics may also be introduced into products where they have not been used before. An example of such an application could be a spoon that automatically measures the weight and temperature of it's content.
The simplest applications can already be manufactured today but it will take five to ten years before more complex devices can be introduced to markets. In the future, electronic products will be designed more freely as the electronics circuits are printed on flexible foils instead of conventional rigid circuit boards. The final product will be partly or entirely flexible, streamlined and it will address the user's requirements better. By printing electronics circuits on a plastic film, it is possible to cut down manufacturing costs and use more environmentally friendly manufacturing methods than what is seen currently in the production of standard circuit boards.
VTT is developing a plastic-based electronics manufacturing technology that will combine research activities in optics, mechanics and printed electronics. Electronic circuits and components are integrated into plastic mouldings in order to reduce the total number of components in devices, lower assembly costs and improve product durability. This integration will also reduce the size of appliances by removing the empty space within them. The two combined manufacturing technologies, printed electronics and injection moulding, are particularly suitable for applications where the manufacturing volumes are large.
The European electronics industry must specialise in order to survive the increasingly hard global competition, as electronics manufacturing is being moved to countries with smaller labour costs. The plastic-based electronics technology can be developed into a next-generation manufacturing paradigm that simultaneously makes use of established expertise and machines as well as the opportunities offered by new technology. Methods that combine injection moulding and printing are very cost-effective but call for broad technical planning and expertise, which makes the copying of products difficult. In fact, the European electronics industry could fight the China phenomenon by developing electronics manufacturing clusters that gather state-of-the-art expertise and specialise in a limited field of applications.
The combination of injection moulding technologies with printed electronics is being investigated in VTT's self-funded SIPS project, which is part of a Complex Systems Design theme.