Canada has a golden opportunity to become a world leader in the nascent printable electronics field, but will need government support to get there, according to a new report by the sector’s industry association.

Noting that what it calls the “printable, flexible, and wearable electronics” market is already expected to be worth $70 billion USD globally by 2024, the Canadian Printable Electronics Industry Association (CPEIA) notes in its 2017 “Strategic Directions” report that many of the sector’s building blocks are industries in which Canada already has a strong track record, including advanced materials, micro-electronics, information and communications technologies, printing, and advanced manufacturing.

However, just like other emerging industries, Canada’s printed electronics sector needs an infusion of capital to reach its full potential, says the report, which outlines four key challenges facing the industry, and six ways the organization would like to use future government funding to meet them.

“[Printable electronics] has the power to create brand new industries by crossing a traditional sector with electronics, such as textiles to create smart textiles, fashion to create wearable electronics, and packaging to create smart packaging,” the report’s authors write. “These are industries in which Canada has traditionally been a strong player, but may fall behind without adding electronic functionality.”

Four challenges facing the printed electronics sector…

Large or small, the businesses that presently make up Canada’s printed electronic sector face significant research and scaling challenges, the CPEIA says, with startups and small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) requiring assistance to connect with larger Canadian and global companies, while the larger organizations themselves need support to compete in the global market.

In particular, CPEIA has identified four key challenges to the Canadian printed electronic industry’s growth and development, according to the report:

  • The Market Challenge: Defining applications and products with large and profitable markets that are ripe for integration with printed electronics. A critical component of meeting this challenge is accessing the companies behind them on a global basis, and convincing them to work with Canadian companies.
  • The New Product Development Challenge: Developing prototypes with an eye towards commercialization, including potential customers likely to embrace trials or early adoption. Key to meeting this challenge is being able to conduct trials of new technologies at a sufficient enough scale to prove their potential profitability.
  • The Manufacturing Challenge: Like the myriad startups that have made tech a defining industry of the 21st century, SMBs in the printed electronic industry often need a third party to invest in their facilities before they become profitable.
  • The Financing Challenge for Scale Up: Unfortunately, the CPEIA notes, printed electronics companies often lack access to the venture capital funding of their more traditional tech industry counterparts.

So how to meet these challenges? Simply put, the CPEIA believes more government intervention is needed.

“[The] current fragmented government support programs and local community-based economic development agencies do not provide the comprehensive, industry-driven approach that’s required to build a healthy ecosystem, scale startups and [SMBs], and strengthen the large Canadian players and active multinationals working in Canada,” the report’s authors write.

“With the right government funding formula, a sector organization like the CPEIA could… create robust growth and economic benefit for Canada much faster than if industry firms are left to struggle along on their own in a fragmented market.”

…and six ways the industry could use government funding to solve them

As for how the government funding would be used, the CPEIA report outlines a six-step strategic plan:

  1. Develop sector plans, assemble leadership councils, and connect postsecondary research and development efforts to four leading printable technology sectors: wearables and health; connected homes and intelligent buildings; smart parts for the transportation industry (i.e. smart cars and drones); and Intellipack, the organization’s current program for intelligent packaging.
  2. Support open-market access in the above-mentioned verticals, such as automotive, health care, and smart packaging, where Canada already has globally competitive players.
  3. Market the sector to dozens of new global end users such as Unilever to help spur the development of new revenue-generating products.
  4. Promote the sector and its industry events to a global audience, so that Canadian companies can connect to the global supply chain.
  5. Fund and carry out product development activities, pilots, trials and demonstration projects that target users in key markets.
  6. Link and develop untapped Canadian manufacturing capabilities such as smart textiles and 3D printable electronics.

You can read the full report here.

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