Tyco Electronics (TE) Connectivity might not be a household name, but the Switzerland-based company’s products – connectors and sensors designed for harsh environments – are inescapable, used worldwide by the automotive, industrial, telecommunications, aerospace, defense, medical, oil and gas, consumer electronics, and energy industries.
So when the head of TE’s Canadian division says printed electronics are on track to play a lead role in the component sector’s future, it’s worth taking notice.
TE Canada managing director Sam Alesio, who will be discussing how the automotive industry in particular can take advantage of printed electronics at the 2018 Canadian Printable/Flexible/Wearable Electronics Symposium (CPES) on May 23, is quick to clarify that he believes flexible electronics aren’t a mainstay of the automotive component world just yet, saying that in his opinion the industry needs to metaphorically pull two levers first: Miniaturization and human-machine interface.
But “there is a future for it,” he tells ITBusiness.ca, which is serving as a media sponsor of CPES 2018. “It’s going to grow if it addresses a couple of things… Miniaturization – the real estate in vehicles is quite expensive, so if you can use flexible electronics to make an actuator, module, or electronic device that can be placed in the vehicle more efficiently or using less space… that’s a positive for the industry. And the fact of the matter is, real estate in a vehicle is hard to come by, so that lever is there for the picking.”
The second “lever,” human-machine interface (HMI), refers to any device that allows users to interact with a machine, which Alesio considers an ideal application for flexible electronics.
At the moment, he says, the component industry primarily sees flexible electronics as a cost-effective way to print alternatives for commonly-used FR-4 circuit boards, frequently used in lighting, though he notes that printable electronics are also used in certain telecommunications components, particularly the antenna covers of cellphones and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and that TE employs a team which is currently researching the viability of flexible electronics for other products.
“As the world is moving towards miniaturization, we’re looking at increased space limitations at the same time we need modules with more complex shapes in automotive vehicle design,” Alesio says. “And when you only have so much real estate, that’s where flexible electronics come in.”
In vehicles especially, real estate is at a premium, he says, and boards such as position sensors or LED-based ambient lights which have fewer than ten components are ideal fodder for printed electronics.
“In telecommunications stacking there can be 500 components in a single board,” Alesio says. “With automotive, we’re talking about very small boards in some cases – things that are a quarter inch by three quarters of an inch. You can only fit between four and 10 components at the most.”
“Flexible electronics gets really, really tough when there’s many, many components to play with,” he continues. “But when space is a factor we take a look at flexible electronics.”
More importantly, Alesio says, when TE only needs to include six components anyway, printed electronics becomes the cheaper option.
“And economics win at the end of the day.”