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By Leo Valiquette

Technology evolves in the context of how it is used.

Hjun-Joong Chung

Hjun-Joong Chung
University of Alberta

This was a common theme at the 2015 Canadian Printable Electronics Symposium (CPES2015) in Montreal, April 21 to 22.

CPES2015 was a sold out success, with more than 130 attendees and 30+ speakers, including keynote speakers from the U.S., Europe and Korea.

By any measure, the event was double in size and scope compared to the previous year. CPES has been repositioned from a small technical meeting into a truly international conference. For 2016, CPEIA’s goal is to continue to grow and build CPES into a major industry event that attracts participants from around the world wishing to network with the Canadian PE sector.

The event was an opportunity to showcase ‘Made in Canada’ products that are at the cutting edge of the industry, and spotlight the work of our leading developers and researchers in the field. But the recurring theme was invariably how and why all this does, can and should matter to the end user, and how their wants and needs must drive technology’s march forward.’

For printable and organic electronics, this means looking beyond discreet components to how they can be combined or integrated with other technologies to create new products or applications.

This is why it is the goal of the CPEIA to involve more and more world-class Canadian companies in printable electronics by exploring ways to add new features to their products through PE.

Dr. Stephen Hoover

Stephen Hoover
Parc, A Xerox Company

The ‘business of breakthroughs’

Keynote speaker Stephen Hoover, CEO of PARC, a Xerox Company, calls this the “business of breakthroughs.”

“Technology is about touching people’s lives and making a difference,” he said.

That touch point is everywhere, caught up in the so-called Internet of Things. With all the focus and hype on wearable technology, only 46 million wearable devices are expected to ship in 2015, said keynote Jennifer Ernst, Chief Strategy Officer of Thin Film Electronics. Compare that number to the roughly 80 billion apparel items and five to 10 trillion consumables produced and used around the world each year. And each one has the potential to become a smart, connected device.

The challenge and opportunity lies in the cost of adding intelligence to these trillions of commodity items.

“That’s what you get with printed electronics, a level of scalability that is unmatched by other technologies in the industry,” Ernst said.

And Hoover agreed. “PE can turn the Internet of Things into the Internet of Everyday Things,” he said. The low cost and rapid production possible with PE makes it reasonable and economical to add intelligence to fabrics and clothing, disposable items like band-aids, and to packaging so that products can track their own freshness and reorder themselves.

Jennifer Ernst

Jennifer Ernst

Redefining the consumer experience

A prime example is Thinfilm’s own OpenSense near field communication (NFC) tags, which can be integrated into everyday consumables and their packaging. These passive tags, created with printable electronics components, can sense if a product is sealed or open and communicate wirelessly. They can be used for interactive marketing and advertising, consumer safety, anti-counterfeiting and anti-diversion monitoring.

“You can create a consumer experience on the front end, but while the product is being scanned you can create a data source at the backend,” Ernst said.

This is just the beginning. To quote the OE-A’s latest Roadmap on the state of the industry, the opportunity spans OLED lighting, printed multifunctional systems, rollable displays, flexible solar cells, electronic clothing, disposable diagnostic devices or games, flexible touch screens and printed energy storage. This is possible thanks to new large-scale, processable, electrically conductive and semi-conducting materials that are being developed by stakeholders across the industry.

Barbara Fisher

Barbara Fisher
OE-A North America

This future is here

In many instances, these products and applications have already entered the market. According to the OE-A Roadmap, examples include:

  • Flexible and curved displays using curved high resolution OLEDs
  • Printed memory devices for brand protection
  • Printed primary batteries and electroluminescent (EL) displays
  • Wearable electronic devices such as fitness armbands and electroluminescent apparel
  • Printed conductive materials in clothing and car seat heaters, which are attracting growing interest for the touch screen display market
  • NFC enabled smart labels and timer labels
  • OLED displays based on organic semiconductors that have already garnered a large market in mobile devices and are moving into the TV market

Banding together

But it takes an ecosystem to bring these solutions to market. Technology developers must work together with manufacturers, systems integrators and major brands or organizations that engage with, or represent, end users.

“Nobody can do any of this on their own,” said keynote Barbara Fisher, Regional Manager of OE-A North America. “We have to work together, band together, to find your next customers.”

The CPEIA’s vertical market strategy

Which brings us back to Canada, and the role of the CPEIA.

“We have started a bit later than Europe or Asia,” said Peter Kallai, President and CEO of the CPEIA and Co-Chair of CPES2015. “But this gives us the advantage of being able to learn others and build upon what has already been created to move ahead quickly.”

Successful products address specific market needs. Product development in the absence of market or customer knowledge and engagement is not a recipe for commercial success or sustainable revenue.

That is why the CPEIA is developing a framework for business networks that will allow the Canadian PE technology industry to work with potential lead customers in target industry verticals on new product and application development. We will soon be unveiling further details of these networks, which we plan to launch in September, if there is sufficient interest.

“We must think about how we can challenge conventional thinking and turbo boost the growth of this industry,” said Kallai. “The way to start is by focusing on end users in specific market verticals – what kinds of applications will have benefits for them? But for this strategy to work, we will need the active participation and support of our Members through our new business networks to actively engage these end customers and build the PE industry in Canada.”