Predictions for printed electronics don’t remove uncertainty

Printed electronics have been used for years, but there’s a general consensus that the technology is about to explode, becoming an industry instead of a niche. Electronics manufacturers have made membrane switches and other components for years, and others are printing throw-away medical products using additive techniques.

Printed electronics can have substrates ranging from glass to plastics to paper. Some products will be very inexpensive, possibly even intelligent price markers for super market shelves. That’s prompted huge variations in the revenue predictions for this field. One analyst estimates growth to $60 billion over the next few years, while another predicts sales of $300 billion.

This huge difference depends in part on how printed electronics is defined. Some analysts include membrane switches and organic LEDs, while others don’t. Others feel inexpensive throwaway products will soon have huge volumes, others discount that for a few more years.

It’s always a bit dicey to believe market projections for new product classes. In the early1990s, startups and companies like Hewlett Packard started making sub-2.5-inch disk drives in expectation of a market takeoff driven by the emergence of handheld products like personal digital assistants. That faded in a flash.

IPC’s printed electronics initiative, which includes standards and marketing efforts, may help bring some structure to the market. Until structure emerges, companies will be wise to plan for a takeoff of printed electronics, but to take market predictions with a grain of salt.

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