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Posted on May 03, 2017 by Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh

Stretchable electronics: everything you need to know

Environmental Gas Sensors 2017-2027
Stretchable Electronics is a term that conceals great diversity. Indeed, it is an umbrella term that refers to a whole host of emerging electronic materials, components and devices that exhibit some degree of mechanical stretchability.
 
Stretchable electronics has been in the making for than a decade, but it up to now it has been mostly a solution looking for a problem. Recent analysis by IDTechEx Research however finds that this is about to change. Indeed, in its new report on Stretchable Electronics 2017-2027 External Link IDTechEx Research finds that the market for stretchable electronics will reach at least $600m by 2027,
 
This comprehensive report is the result of years of primary research in tracking and assessing technology and market developments for various stretchable electronics components and applications. Indeed, Stretchable Electronics 2017-2027 External Link provides you with everything you need to know about the technologies, markets, and players for the entire stretchable electronics industry.

Stretchable interconnects are the first to market

The seemingly simple interconnect is one of the first applications to be commercially launched. Here specially formulated conductive inks or stretchable wires/yarns are used in electronic textile applications. The inks are also targeting other applications such as highly pliable PCBs, or long and stretchy medical electrodes (e.g., ECG).
 
The same or similar inks can also be used as sensors by exploiting the resistance changes with elongation. The inks are often protected under an encapsulation or overcoat layer, which in itself is becoming an area of innovation for material suppliers.
The number of stretchable conductive ink suppliers is on the rise. Source: clock wise from top left: Jujo Chemical (FineTech 2016,Japan), Ash Chemical (Finetech 2016, Japan), EMS/Nagase (IDTechEx Show! 2015, Toyobo (Japan Nanotech 2015), University of Tokyo (Japan Nanotech 2016), DuPont (IDTechEx Show! USA 2015), Henkel (IDTechEx Show! USA 2016), Panasonic (IDTechEx Show! USA 2016), Taiyo. The conference name/location indicates where IDTechEx analysts took the photo.

In-mold application to take off after years of false starts

An expanding tool kit of materials compatible with In-Mold electronics (IME) is also being developed. This materials need to withstand thermoforming and moulding conditions including a one-off elongation event. Here too, conductive inks and adhesives were the first IME-compatible materials but the choice is now expanding to include transparent conductive films, sensors, actuators, and so on. We expect 2017 to be the year when IME applications hit the market afters year of false starts.
The material choice for IME and thermoformable TCFs is increasing. Source: clockwise from top left: In-mould automotive control unit using PEDOT by Nagase, photo taken at Nepcon Japan 2017; thermoformed metal mesh by Fujifilm, photo taken at the IDTechEx Show! USA 2016; thermoformed double-walled carbon nanotube TCF by Toray, photo taken at FineTech Japan 2016; thermoformed carbon nanotube TCF by Chasm, photo taken at the IDTechEx Show! USA 2016; thermoformed self-assembled nanoparticle TFT by Cima Nanotech; thermoformed carbon nanobud TCF by Canatu, photo taken at the IDTechEx Show! USA 2015; thermoformed PEDOT by Heraeus, photo taken at the IDTechEx Show! 2016; thermoformed PEDOT TCFs by Heraues and Agfa, photos taken at the FineTech Japan 2014.

Stretch sensors find their niche

Stretch sensors are also finding use in a diverse array of applications. In fact, the industry is now in the brainstorming phase and we have already witnessed the identification of several promising niche applications beyond electronic textiles and robotic arms. These sensors come in a variety of formats and are based on different principles of operations. Some examples are shown below.
Many companies around the world are developing and showcasing various types of stretch sensors aimed at medical, e-textile, electronic, robotic and other application areas. Source: clockwise from top left: Electroactive polymer stretch sensor by Parker Hannifin for industrial monitoring applications, Electroactive polymer stretch sensor by Stretchsense for motion capture gloves; Resistive stretch/strain sensor from Brewer Science; stretch sensors with CNT-loaded elastomeric force sensors by Yamaha; PVDF-based stretch sensor by Kureha, resistive stretch sensor by Polymatech; and Capacitive stretch sensor by Bando Chemical. These photos were taken by IDTechEx analysts at the IDTechEx Show! USA 2016 and Wearable Tech Expo Japan 2017.

PCB manufacturers get ready for stretchable electronics

PCB manufactures are also developing processes to manufacture stretchable PCBs following the rigid island-stretchable interconnect approach which combines mechanical flexibility with the high performance of rigid electronics. Indeed, our team has seen numerous such companies all over the world prototyping samples and seeking ways to speed up the production process without compromising yield or circuit complexity. In parallel, manufactures are also developing ways to further thin PCBs or develop novel materials to create stretchable and/or conformable PCBs. Some examples are shown below.
Stretchable and/or conformable PCB prototype and products. Source: clockwise from left to right: MEKTECK, Hitachi Chemical, Flexceed, Taiyo, Taiyo, and MC10. Photos taken by IDTechEx analysts at Wearable Expo Japan 2017 and Nepcon Japan 2017.

Long tail of innovation in stretchable electronics

There is also a long tail of innovation on all types of stretchable electronic devices, including batteries, energy harvesters, displays, transistors, photovoltaics, and so on. Many such devices are still in the early proof-of-concept phase and device complexity often suggests prolonged development times. Nonetheless, they will, soon or later, form a part of this emerging frontier of electronics.
 
Printed and Flexible Sensors 2017-2027: Technologi
Overall, this new technological frontier is on the cusp of growth, becoming at least a $600m market by 2027. The industry however cannot be painted with a broad brush and success will be in the detail. Indeed, as the Stretchable Electronics 2017-2027 External Link report reveals, some stretchable components will become success stories in the short- to medium-term, whereas others will remain largely an academic curiosity. It will also reveal that stretchable electronics will deliver compelling, at times enabling, value in some application sectors, whilst remaining an immature technology against many other options in other sectors.
 
Please refer to our new report on Stretchable Electronics 2017-2027 External Link to learn the latest insights and details on this emerging technological frontier.
Technology readiness of various stretchable materials, components and systems. Source: IDTechEx Research