The term, structural electronics (SE), refers to a next-generation based electronics technology, which involves the printing of functional electronic circuitries, across irregular-shaped architectures. SE is expected to replace bulky load-bearing structures within a circuitry with smart electronic components that can conform to complex shapes for ensuring optimum space utilization. SE offers different and better ways of implementing electronic functionalities into the products.
Structural electronics is replacing the old dumb steel, plastic, glass and concrete components with smart materials, smart skin, load-bearing parts, and e-textiles. Some present and future applications of structural electronics are morphing aircraft using shape memory alloys, car with printed organic light emitting diode OLED lighting on outside and inside of roof and printed photovoltaics over the outside generating electricity supercapacitor skin on an electric car replacing the traction battery as energy storage, smart skin as a nervous system for an aircraft and solar boats and aircraft running on sunshine alone.
In London, a piezoelectric smart dance floor generates electricity and smart bridges across the world have sensors and more embedded in their concrete, all forms of structural electronics as it is increasingly the way to go.
The key capability of structural electronics is to reduce the weight of the product and is expected to disrupt the automotive and aerospace sectors. Core manufacturing processes for structural electronics are printing, surface mounting, forming and injection molding.
In the future, passengers will use travel time to work or relax. Therefore, interior is gaining in importance with features like Individually adjustable interior lighting, combined with sensor-controlled shading in case of strong sunlight, is intended to provide the appropriate atmosphere and both the driving experience. More than 100 sensors are already installed in today’s automobiles. This number is going to become even higher in the future.
Printing is the first core manufacturing process. Electronics and decoration (graphic inks) are printed onto plastic film or another suitable substrate material.
With conventional electrical components and their cabling, there is hardly any room left in the vehicle interior for the occupants. Flexible and printed Electronics have enabled thin and flexible components, often transparent, that they can be integrated into side panels, seat covers and windows, in steering wheels, dashboards and other elements of any shape. Printed electronics play a key role in ensuring the high demands on safety and comfort of alternative drives and autonomous vehicles.
In addition, the number of displays in the vehicle interior will continue to increase. They not only replace conventional displays, but in autonomous vehicles, they also serve as a human-machine interface and, above all, for infotainment. Car manufacturers want to implement both innovative lighting and meet the increasing demand for displays with printed organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). With the flexible, flat and extremely energy-efficient OLEDs, the interior can be virtually wallpapered.
Surface mounting technology (SMT) is the second core process. Components are placed and bonded, mechanically and electrically, onto electronic films. The output is 2D (two-dimensional) film substrate with components.
Forming is the third core process. Two-dimensional electric and graphic films are thermoformed into three-dimensional shape and trimmed as needed. Outputs are 3D electric films with components and 3D graphic films. Thermoforming of plastic materials, also known as deep-drawing, is also suitable for the integration of prefabricated printed electronic components.
Structural Electronics technology enables design innovation by integrating electronic functions into 3-dimensional injection molded plastic structures. Injection molding is the fourth core manufacturing process.
Three-dimensional electric films and 3D graphic films are used as inserts in an injection molding tool, and plastic resin, such as polycarbonate (PC) is injected between the films resulting in a single molded part. The output is a strong and durable structure in which electronics are encapsulated within the molded plastic.
Features, such as controls, sensors, illumination and communications, are embedded in thin 3D structures with plastic, wood and other surfaces. The structures are light, thin and durable. The part also weighs less and is significantly thinner.
BÖ-LA and TactoTek jointly announced that they signed an agreement for BÖ-LA to market and sell injection molded structural electronics (IMSE) solutions. This partnership brings together the leaders in their respective technology domains to advance the market for integrating electronic functionality within molded plastics.
Mold electronics will then be replaced by 3D printed electronics due to the ongoing development of conductive printing inks and pastes. Bew materials and processes are being developed that will improve the production.
British automaker Jaguar is working on coating the entire interior of Land Rovers with smart, color-changing, interactive screens. The tech could not only make future electric cars more customizable than ever, but could also save weight for a better range.
“Healthcare, aerospace, consumer technology and military industries are already harnessing the benefits of structural electronics and our research is leading the way in the automotive sector by bringing it into the cabin for the first time,” said Land Rover Electrical Research Technical Manager Ashutosh Tomar in a press release.
The Lightweight Electronics in Simplified Architecture (LESA) project takes advantage of existing printable electronics technology already used in flexible OLED TVs, according to the press release. Jaguar envisions these smart panels to enable things like “customizable interior ambient lighting systems, body controls, wraparound button-less dashboards and advanced fabric/leather heated steering wheels,” according to the release.
The idea is also to reduce the weight of in-car electronics, allowing for more circuitry to be used in future electric cars without affecting their range too much.
Structural Electronics Market
The structural electronics market is expected to register a CAGR of 15.3% during the forecast period of 2019-2024. Improvements in 3D technology and the rise of IoT are the factors fueling the growth of structural electronics market. In addition, there is an increase in the demand for lightweight, cost-effective, and compact products. Structural electronics offer these advantages, thereby augmenting their usage in a wide range of applications.
Advancements in material science to develop stretchable conductive materials, application diversity, and government funding are expected to play important roles in driving the advancements in the structural electronics industry.
For instance, one of the largest Japanese car companies experimented a 3D printing of ultra-lightweight vehicle seats, based on bird-bone structure. The car is expected to become the first 3D-PE (3D Printed Electronics) with electrics and electronics built into the seat.
However, the lack of technological awareness might hamper the growth of the market during the forecast period.
Structural electronics include electronic components and circuits that act as load-bearing protective structures by replacing the dumb structures (such as automobile bodies) conformally placed upon them. The critical capability of structural electronics to reduce the weight of a product is projected to disrupt the automotive sector.
Structural electronics is expected to be next important thing in smart cars, as the elements of structural electronics would be integrated within the vehicle’s body and undercarriage for resembling the human nervous system and enabling cars to instantly recognize touch and damage.
In addition, in the future, hybrid/electric cars are expected to use structural electronics, with printed OLED (organic light emitting diode) incorporated inside and outside the car roof.
Moreover, the boom in automobile production across the world with adaption to new technology has brought in changes. Lightweight and compact parts are expected to witness significant demands because of structural electronics over the forecast period.
North America to Account for the Largest Share in Structural Electronics Market
North America’s robust financial position enables it to invest heavily in advanced solutions and technologies. The higher penetration of structural electronics in the region can be attributed to the high adoption of such products in conductors, photovoltaic products, and sensors that are used in high-end cars and space vehicles.
Structural electronics has shown tremendous progress in the United States, and is supported by vast R&D activities. For instance, in order to drive the technology that couples flexible substrates, printed circuits, and thinned silicon die, NextFlex research center has been formed with about USD 165 million in private and public backing.
Moreover, primarily electric vehicles utilize structural electronics. This factor is expected to propel the growth of the market studied, as the North Americans are increasingly adopting electric cars. In addition, the increasing usage of IOT and 3D technology across various industries is projected to fuel the demand for structural electronics.
The structural electronics market is highly consolidated. The reason is that structural electronics is a highly sophisticated technology that makes it very tough for the new players to enter this market. Moreover, the top players have a major share in the market. Some of the key players include The Boeing Company, Panasonic Corporation, TactoTek Oy, Canatu Oy, Neotech AMT GmbH, Toyobo Co. Ltd, among others.