Flexible electronics refers to a class of electronic devices built on stretchable or conformable substrates. These include plastic, metal foil, flex glass, and paper. Some of the top advantages of flexible electronics, compared to their rigid, conventional counterparts, are energy efficiency, portability, size, and weight. Moreover, they also make previously impossible technologies and designs, such as wearable devices, a reality. As per Inkwood Research, the global flexible electronics market is projected to record a revenue of $82.637 billion, growing with a CAGR of 8.62% during the forecast period of 2023 to 2032.
Beyond Consumer Electronics: The Multi-Faceted Applications of Flexible Electronics
Flexible electronics typically entail electrical circuits mounted on a flexible plastic substrate, like a polyester or polyether ether ketone (PEEK). The rapid development of this field has been spurred by the continuing evolution of large-area consumer electronics with various applications in flat-panel displays, medical image sensors, and electronic paper.
However, with an emerging need for lightweight, mechanically flexible, and cost-effective devices, flexible electronics have gained considerable momentum in catering to the demands of various other industries, as well. In this regard, the significant rise in research & development within the global flexible electronics market, and related sectors, such as flexible hybrid electronics (FHE), further facilitates technological advancements in the field.
Subsequently, this factor plays an integral role in expanding the applications of flexible electronic technology across multiple end-user industries, such as –
- Medical & Healthcare: Over recent years, several wearable biosensors for health monitoring have garnered the attention of scientific communities. Flexible electronic devices with integrated sensors can help detect tiny physiological signals and can be effectively used to monitor human health.In this regard, wearable devices are utilized in numerous medical & healthcare applications, catering to neurocognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, as well as physiological ailments, including cardiovascular diseases, muscle disorders, and hypertension. Moreover, Inkwood Research anticipates that the medical & healthcare segment, under the application category, is projected to grow with the highest CAGR of 8.96% during the forecast period.As per the World Health Organization (WHO), chronic diseases account for around three-quarters (74%) of all fatalities worldwide, thus imposing high economic burdens. Therefore, several effective strategies, including the use of healthcare wearable devices, are required for the monitoring and diagnosis of such diseases. These devices include skin-, tattoo-, biofluidic-, and textile-based wearables. Furthermore, wearables have also shown encouraging improvements as a drug delivery system, therefore enhancing their utility in terms of personalized healthcare.
- Aerospace & Defense: The performance of electronic systems, both civilian as well as military, has grown extensively since the advent of electronics. This is mainly credited to continual improvements in the miniaturization of electronic systems and components. Furthermore, the resultant reduction in the size, weight, and power (SWaP) required to implement functions of increasing complexity plays an essential role, as well.Spacecraft and satellites require lightweight devices that are capable of fitting into confined spaces. Besides, since both weight, as well as physical space, are precious elements in aerospace applications, designing electronics that can fit into small, irregular spots helps in the resourceful use of rocket fuel, subsequently minimizing costs.On the other hand, military electronics are packaged to operate in adverse settings, such as lower humidity and greater temperatures, without compromising capabilities. The defense sector primarily utilizes sensors in flexible materials for engines, vehicles, or temporary structures. Aligning with this, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) has expressed significant interest in the physical flexibility of electronic designs, demonstrated by healthy investments, for example, in electronic innovator NextFlex (United States). As of 2020, these investments include a $154 million award for an Army-led flexible electronics project.
- Automotive: Flexible electronics is an area of technology that holds substantial promise for the automotive industry. The usage of thin electronics on flexible substrates is set to be fuelled mainly by the pressing need to lessen weight – a chief concern for the manufacturing of electric vehicles.With automobiles becoming more connected every day, the increasing connectivity necessitates multiple antennas to handle several frequency bands. Through the use of flexible electronics, antennas can be effectively built into body panels as well as other surfaces. Flexible electronics’ conformality is also well-suited to the emerging preferences in automotive interior design that is more inclined towards organic curves over flat surfaces.In addition, OLED displays for cars and truck interiors are providing developers with new tools to design with. For example, in 2021, Continental Corporation (Germany) announced that it received a €1 billion order for its OLED display. Accordingly, OLED is expected to be the dominating flexible display during the forecasted period, capturing a revenue share of 66.45% by 2032. (Source: Inkwood Research)
- Energy & Power: Flexible electronics in power generation applications are becoming increasingly popular, especially with the use of flexible thin-film solar cells in solar roof panels. Although earlier photovoltaic cells were made predominantly of silicon-based solar cells, in the current market scenario, flexible solar panels entail crystalline silicon.In a key development, Organic Electronic Technologies [OET] (Greece) stated that it secured funds to establish a pilot plant; the unit is set to facilitate the production of third-generation photovoltaics that will be flexible in nature. OET, in this regard, has secured more than EUR 21 million from the European Union’s Horizon.Moreover, the company has collaborated with Lab for Thin Films – Nanobiomaterials, Nanosystems and Nanometrology (LTFN) in order to ensure the scaling up of light, thin, and flexible solar power panels. Presently, OET manufactures third-generation photovoltaic (PV) panels through nanotechnology, and these flexible solar panels are anticipated to have multiple applications that could amplify solar installations globally.
The future of flexible electronics is a foreseeable compilation of novel implementations, ranging from harvesting energy from sunlight through cars, clothing, and windows to implantable bioelectronics that makes diagnostics simpler via machine learning. The electronics industry is also set to witness advanced research that boosts the functionality of materials and integrates multiple devices to autonomously gather, analyze, and transfer data without the need for expensive external components.
Subsequently, these developments are projected to set the field of flexible electronics at the forefront of new products and applications, thus providing the global flexible electronics market with lucrative growth opportunities during the forecast period.
What is the structure of flexible electronics?
The fundamental structure of flexible electronics constitutes at least four parts, including electronic components, cross-linked conductors, flexible substrates, and sealing layers.
What are the advantages of flexible display?
Some of the top advantages of flexible displays include lighter weight, better durability, and the potential to be perfectly curved and utilized in several devices. Moreover, as per Inkwood Research, flexible display is set to be the major component by 2032.