Prime time for printed sensors

Dr Guillaume Chansin, Senior Technology Analyst, IDTechEx



G. Chansin

Various examples of printed sensors demonstrated at events

When I explain printed electronics, I like to distinguish between the old kind printed electronics and the new ones. A decade ago, people were trying to replace silicon by organic semiconductors - materials that could be directly printed. This idea that you could make transistors in a roll-to-roll fashion just like a newspaper was ambitious, to say the least. Most people in the industry now would agree that this agenda was too heroic.

Nowadays, printed electronics encompass a larger variety of materials and devices. The objective is no longer to replace silicon but to complement it by offering new functionalities. Sensors are particularly attractive because they usually have a simple structure, which makes manufacturing easier. Some companies who have accumulated a great amount of expertise in printed electronics are now looking at sensors as their best chance to make money.

Wearables and the IoT
The second driver is the gold rush for new sensor technologies for two of today's hottest topics: wearable technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT). In both types of applications, the sensor is the component that generates meaningful data and therefore justifies the whole infrastructure and ecosystem. Without sensors, it just would not make sense to connect everything around us to the cloud.

In wearables, the focus should be on developing capabilities that go well beyond what the typical accelerometer or gyroscope can do. Some very innovative concepts have already been put forward by companies like Electrozyme, who won the Best Product Development Award at our Printed Electronics USA event last November.

However, it would be a mistake to think that wearable technology is the main market for printed sensors. In fact, wearables could just be the tip of the iceberg as many industries increase their demand for better sensors. From what I have seen, it is evident that printed sensors can be useful in a wide range of applications.

After years of working on the wrong applications, the printed electronics industry is now focused on bringing products to the market. Sensors may be the lowest hanging fruit but they still represent a solid opportunity. If the current technology trends are any indication of what is coming up, the next decade could be a golden age for sensors.