As new sensor technologies continue to proliferate in existing and emerging applications, one especially promising area is printed-electronic sensors. We recently spoke with Dan Brewer, Executive Director of Marketing and Intellectual Property at Brewer Science, an active participant and one of the early entrants into this technology segment. The privately held company is based in Rolla, Missouri and was founded by Dr. Terry Brewer in 1981. The company got its start in semiconductor materials and specifically in materials used in front-end processes. They still claim to hold the largest market share in anti-reflective coatings for semiconductors, and they produce 70-80 types of materials used in lithography processes. From front-end materials, the company expanded to back-end advanced packaging materials, and from there to printed electronics.
Dan Brewer: It’s a very diverse marketplace with lots of applications. PST Sensors and Thin Film Electronics, as a joint development, are focused on food and pharmaceutical applications (i.e., to monitor the lifetime of those types of products). Bebop has several types of sensors and they are applying them in applications such as wearables and automotive seating. Ikea recently introduced “e-label” technology for printed displays of product labels. Schreiner PrinTronics is using printed electronics in RFID and flexible batteries. ISORG is working with FlexEnable on printed image sensors.
MEMS Journal: Who are some of the leading academia researchers in the area of printed sensors and electronics?
Dan Brewer: We work with a couple of universities: The University of Massachusetts Lowell, which has a printed electronics research center that is tied with NextFlex, and also Western Michigan University, which has a center of excellence for printed electronics focused on the health and medical fields.
MEMS Journal: What are the most promising applications?
Dan Brewer: It’s still the "wild west" when looking at applications for printed sensors. There are lots of applications, such as IIoT, robotics, healthcare, automotive (tire wear, for example), and even cell phones. The challenge is how to sort through them and identify the ones that make the most sense. From a business perspective, it’s still somewhat unclear.
We’ve chosen IIoT and environmental health and safety. As a manufacturing company, we are familiar with the manufacturing of high-end materials for semiconductors. And environmental health, water conservation, and pollution monitoring are growing in importance for the future of human society.
MEMS Journal: What are the leading consortia or organizations in this field?
Dan Brewer: NextFlex (affiliated with SEMI) is probably the main one. Another relevant one is the Organic Electronics Association (OEA).
MEMS Journal: What is the origin of your printed sensors and electronics technology? How long did it take you to develop this technology?
Dan Brewer: Everything was developed in-house at Brewer Science. We are a materials technology company developing unique carbon-based inks. We took our basic materials technology and wanted to build sensors with it that have unique electrical and physical properties. To utilize these sensors fully, we also needed to develop the associated electronics for our customers.
It took us more than four years to develop the sensor materials technology, and another year to develop the surrounding system electronics technology. On top of the hardware, we also needed to develop the analytical software, so our customers and their users can take full advantage of the data our sensors are providing.
MEMS Journal: How are you handling your manufacturing for these sensors?
Dan Brewer: For sensors manufacturing in high volume, we can do it in-house. And we outsource board production in high volume. We don't have customers in high volume yet. We are expecting to start making these devices in high volume in 2019.
MEMS Journal: Which types of sensors will you make first?
Dan Brewer: We started with temperature, flex, and moisture sensors. We then added a variety of gas and water-quality sensors.
MEMS Journal: What technical challenges did you encounter with this technology and how did you overcome them?
Dan Brewer: Each type of sensor requires its own materials set, including the substrates, inks, and protective layers. In other words, we need to optimize performance via material design to highly tune the sensor to each customer’s system specifications. Another big challenge is at the corporate level — we needed to build the expertise in house to develop the electronics and software. We tried to outsource these things, but it didn't work so well. Another challenge was to make sensor arrays (i.e., various types of sensors on the same substrate).
Printed sensors and electronics are still very early. Lots of R&D is currently going on, and most technologies still fall short of customer needs. There are four main technology areas that are being developed: materials, hardware, software, and data security. For a product, you cannot separate hardware, software, and data security. And the materials used in the printed sensors are obviously key.
MEMS Journal: What’s your roadmap for this technology? What enhancements and improvements are you planning this year and in the next few years?
Dan Brewer: We are pursuing two market areas. The first one is industrial IoT (smart manufacturing), and the other one is health and environmental monitoring (air and water, for example). We are also working with many government agencies to develop the technology further, and we are now starting to take on commercial partners.
MEMS Journal: Are you developing any new types of sensors this year?
Dan Brewer: This year, we’ll come out with more advancements on environmental sensors arrays (detecting multiple factors related to air and water quality), that are wirelessly connected.
MEMS Journal: What’s your approach for technology licensing?
Dan Brewer: Our development is usually done in-house. We don't license technologies, but instead develop everything ourselves, which is where we’ve had the most success. However, we do license technologies to other companies.
This article is a part of MEMS Journal's ongoing market research project in the area of printed sensors and electronics. If you would like to receive our comprehensive market research report on this topic, please contact Dr. Mike Pinelis at email@example.com for more information about rates and report contents.
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