April 10, 2012 -- Dr Peter Harrop, Chairman, IDTechEx, reports on stretchable electronics: electrical and electronic circuits and combinations of these that are elastically or inelastically stretchable by more than a few percent while retaining function. Stretchable electronics has been one of the least exploited but most researched sectors of the new electronics over the past decade. Commercialization has been elusive and a number of manufacturers have left the scene, though the participants see huge potential.
Usually the elastic versions must withstand repeated flexing without loss of function as with a patch attached to a living heart for diagnostics, energy harvesting to power implants and/or control, for that, they tend to be laminar and usually thin. No definitions of electronics and electrical sectors are fully watertight but it is convenient to consider stretchable electronics as a part of printed electronics, a term taken to include printed and potentially printed (eg thin film) electronics and electrics. This is because the cost, space and weight reduction sought in most cases is best achieved by printing and printing-like technologies.
Artificial Muscle has commercialized electroactive devices employing elastic electrodes some years ago in haptic touch switches (you feel what you are doing) and promoted them for such things as energy harvesting and steerable serpentine camera lenses. Bayer AG has now snapped up this promising company.
Nonetheless, it would be fair to say that the commercialization of stretchable electronics has been disappointingly rare so far.
mc10 Inc in the USA is a rare example of a pure play stretchable electronics company. It works with partners in a joint development model to prototype and manufacture novel applications for consumer, military, medical and industrial applications, giving us a glimpse of where this nascent industry sees its products being used.
The value chain for printed electronics is unbalanced, with too little effort to commercialize the technologies, such as by designing innovative, amusing or useful new products, never before possible, created using the new toolkit. For example, the easiest commercialization of stretchable electronics may lie in consumer goods, jewelry, fashion, toys and novelties but almost all participants are focused on the slow-moving healthcare sector that is understandably more demanding in terms of safety and quality requirements and approvals. Certainly many very interesting things are being done to modernize sportswear, for example.
That said, it is particularly in healthcare that stretchability, bringing portability, disposability, error prevention, wearability and so on, reads on to many of the big trends and needs today. These include how to cope with an ageing population that wish to stay mobile and how to respond to the fact that there will not be enough physicians, hospitals and carers to cope using old procedures and equipment. Stretchable implanted and skin mounted electronic and electrical patches will diagnose and respond earlier, delivering drugs with less error than when the patient had to remember times and doses. It facilitates the bionic man and woman and more. Indeed the longer term objectives are truly awesome, with talk of un-intrusive electronics in the folds of the brain for example.
Taking the broader view that stretchable electronics makes a host of new functions possible in many sectors of industry, we see investors sensing that this nascent industry is indeed at a tipping point. Too often the objectives have been engineering-led and un-ambitious in terms of market positioning. Add 100 creative designers to the mix and commercialization will leap forward at a blistering pace.
On the one hand, mc10 focuses on healthcare applications, commercializing the outstanding advances in the subject provided by the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. It completed a Series b fundraising bringing the round's total to $14.75 million in September 2011. mc10 takes electronics 'out of the box' to create thin, conformal systems that are able to move with the natural world. The company combines breakthrough technology with innovative engineering to develop exciting new consumer, medical, and industrial products. mc10 is headquartered in Cambridge, MA
"mc10 represents a game-changing technology for medical devices and health care electronics," said Adam Fine, Managing Director of investor Windham Venture Partners, experts in healthcare. "We are pleased to provide both capital and expertise to accelerate their products and partnerships in life science applications."
mc10's ability to create bendable, stretchable systems out of otherwise rigid high performance electronics has immediate benefits for health and wellness products. For example, mc10 is working on "electronic skin", which can measure everything from heart rate to activity level to hydration, all in a thin, sticker-like package. This has enormous potential in the health, wellness, and health care markets.
The company's active partnerships, collaborations, and funding sources, including Massachusetts General Hospital, the US Navy, and Reebok, demonstrate the broad impact of mc10's platform. For mc10, Windham's support and involvement represents an ideal addition to the existing team. "Windham complements the skills and interests of our other venture investors," said mc10's CEO David Icke. "They bring a driven, entrepreneurial approach along with a deep knowledge and far-reaching experience that will help us build our life science electronics business."
Now investors are alert for the mc10 of other application sectors for stretchable electronics given that so much of the engineering is ready to move into pre-production. Here we have origami electronics and car electronic and electrical parts that can mould into position as the vehicle is constructed. However, tackling this calls for a completely different approach and value chain from traditional electronics and electrics with its focus on companies making different components and other companies that put them all together in a box and make them work. Traditional electronics and electrics does not involve the paper and packaging, publishing or printing industry to any significant extent. It has some input from the chemical and plastics industry but the new electronics turns all this on its head with totally new forms of collaboration becoming essential and much of the added value going to the chemical industry in particular.
Those that try to use the old approach of making and selling individual components by just printing them tend to go out of business because what the market and the economics demand is complete smart labels etc that perform a function at lowest cost. Even ink making comes centre stage as does the replacement of print and manual procedures before the replacement of electronics. Excitingly, some of those inks will even include such exotica as carbon nanotube and graphene springs and transparent, not just stretchable and foldable electronics becomes widely possible. For more information on stretchable electronics please view IDTechEx's "Stretchable Electronics Comes to Market" report at www.IDTechEx.com/stretch.