After more than a decade of research and development, stretchable electronics is making a major shift as novel form factors start emerging, according to a new report from market analysts at IDTechEx.

The IDTechEx Research report, “Stretchable Electronics 2017-2027,” predicts that stretchable electronics will become a $600 million market by 2027. The market shift goes beyond the traditional incremental technology development along well-established industry lines. Instead, it seeks to create new functions, new applications and new users. As such, this technology frontier currently only has vague figures-of-merit and limited insight on customer needs.

It is, say the analysts, no longer a solution looking for a problem, but is about to emerge as “structural electronics,” a new category and a trend that will transform traditional electronics from being components-in-a-box into truly invisible electronics that are part of the structure of the world around us. This is a major long-term shift that will lead to a root-and-branch change of the electronic industry, including its value chain, its materials and its components.

The material and components menu for stretchable electronics is already very extensive: it includes basic and comparatively more mature technologies such as inks, transparent conductive films and sensors, but also more complex devices such as transistors, batteries, energy harvesters, displays and so on.

The report aims to provide a critical assessment of all the technologies including stretch sensors; ink-, yarn- or wire-based stretchable interconnects; in-mould electronic inks and transparent conductive films; stretchable batteries, energy harvesters, displays, logic and more.

The application space is also beginning to firm up. Electronic textile products with conductive inks and polymers have already been commercially launched and a maturing industry will lead to increased volumes with more competitive pricing in the coming years, according to the report.

In-mould electronics (IME) products are in the final stages of qualification for high-volume white goods and automotive applications. IDTechEx expects notable commercial launches for IME products in 2017 after years of on-and-off starts. Here, stretchable conductive inks will be the first to reach the markets but the industry is already expanding its toolkit to include IME-compatible transparent conductive film (carbon nanotubes, metal mesh, PEDOT, silver nanowires, etc.) and sensors/actuators.

IDTechEx_stretchable_01 (cr) Figure 1: The chart shows a ten-year market projections split by materials/components. (Source: IDTechEx)

Flexible PCB manufacturers are also busy perfecting their process to create stretchable boards following either the rigid-island-flexible-connector or ultra-thinning approaches. The challenge is to increase throughput without compromising yield or high-temperature compatibility. In the long-term these manufacturers have their sights set on creating an enabling platform, whilst in the short term they are working with partners on applications such as skin patches or fully conformable wearable devices.