The next step beyond electrically conductive polymer is printing electronic circuits on flexible plastic film. Printed polymer electronics and conductive nano inks will allow cost-effective production of highly integrated, complex molded electronic components.

Plastic electronics are devices produced from conductive plastics or organic polymers. While the development of printed electronics is still in its early stages, the technology has the potential to dramatically change the electronics industry.

According to IDTechEx, a market research firm, the global market for printed electronics will grow from $2 billion in 2010 to $56 billion in 2020, with 71 percent printed and 60 percent on flexible substrates.

Plastic-based transistors and light-emitting diodes are easier and cheaper to manufacture than traditional metal-based components. Potential applications include solar cells, displays and lighting, sensors, RFID and optical signal processing.

In addition to consumer products, there’s big potential for printed electronics in the automotive and aerospace industries. For instance, a start-up company called T-Ink Inc. has developed conductive ink printing technology that could replace traditional copper wiring in cars, resulting in up to 40 percent weight and space savings.

The inks can be printed in virtually any color using conventional methods, including offset, screen print, flexo and gravure. They will adhere to just about any substrate, including paper, textiles, plastics, glass and metal. The inks also work in environments from -40 F to 500 F and can be bent, stretched and washed without losing conductivity.

Engineers at Boeing are also eager to experiment with printed electronics technology to reduce weight, maintenance and cost of aircraft. In fact, the new 747-8 plane incorporates a partly printed bird-strike damage detection sensor.

Bayer MaterialScience has developed a wide range of materials that allow manufacturers to print polycarbonate films with electronic functions and process them into 3D electronic components using the film insert molding process.

“This printed polymer electronics technology is seen as a next-generation technology for delivering cost-effective production of highly integrated, complex molded electronic components,” says Dirk Pophusen, head of business development for functional films at Bayer MaterialScience.

According to Pophusen, films offer various benefits in printed polymer electronics. “They can be printed in a limited space with several electronic functions, such as wiring diagrams, actuators, sensors and antennae, which previously had to be applied as separate components,” he explains.

“Integrating these functions therefore cuts the number of parts required and the amount of logistical and assembly work,” Pophusen points out. “This results in compact, ready-to-install ‘all-in-one’ electronic modules that require a minimum of space, thus reflecting the trend toward miniaturization in electronics.”