Imagine a world where the clothes you wear can automatically gather biometric data about your well-being or act as credit cards. Where solar cells can take any shape or form, or be transparent enough to be used as a window. Imagine a smart plaster that continuously monitors the healing process and applies a dressing to speed it up. This might sound like science fiction, but thanks to printable electronics, many of these innovations are becoming a reality.

Printable electronics have many applications.

Printed electronics are just that - electrical circuits printed using inks made of metallic or other conducting particles. Almost any material can be used to be printed on - glass, moulded plastic, organic matter, paper, textiles, and so on. Such printed electronics can be rolled, stretched, shaped to fit any form, no matter the size, making them employable in a wide range of products and applications.

Not only is the societal and environmental impact of this technology huge, it also offers lots of commercial opportunities. Recent data from the Organic and Printed Electronics Association’s annual roadmap shows that applications like antennas, displays, photovoltaics and circuitry have pushed the global market for printable electronics from US$5.6 billion in 2010 to US$26.9 billion in 2016, and the further extension of the technology to many more applications is likely to see the market reach US$43 billion by 2020 - that’s year-on-year growth of 13.9%. Research also shows that printable electronics are growing particularly strongly in Europe.

Great potential, strong support

Given this strong market growth, there is clearly great potential for European companies to flourish in this fascinating field. To seize these opportunities, we have invested around €350 million in the FP7 and Horizon 2020 research programmes for research, development and innovation in printable electronics over the last 10 years. Funded projects cover the whole value chain from foundational research to very specific use cases such as wearables/smart textiles, healthcare and energy.

Also as a result of this funding, Europe is becoming a major player in this field. Research organisations such as CEA in France, the Holst Centre in the Netherlands or the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland are all working on printed and flexible electronics, many of them supported by EU funding.

A number of European start-ups and companies are already working on practical applications of the technology. Finnish start-up Canatu, for example, specialises in flexible transparent conductive films and touch sensors and is developing high-tech consoles and dashboards for the automotive industry.

Europe’s research into graphene - a one-atom-thick layer of graphite that is highly flexible, strong and conductive - puts us is in a great place to lead the development of printed electronics that have a far lower impact on our environment. This is because graphene inks can now be printed on paper - a fully recyclable material with a reduced carbon footprint compared to others such as metal or plastic.

Other relevant EU-funded projects in this area are LOMID focusing on microdisplays, PHEBE working on blue emitters, PING looking at developing smart printed materials such as cards or stickers, and LUMENTILE  developing luminous tiles for buildings. There are also Digital Innovation Hubs working in this area such as SmartEEs or InSCOPE that are helping to consolidate European leadership in the field and offer services to SMEs and start-ups.

Printable electronics are an exciting technology with many fascinating applications that will become ubiquitous in the future. Given its importance, it will play a key role in the revision of the EU strategy on micro- and nanoelectronics which is currently underway.