New standard provides a solid base to aid growth of printed electronics

IPC/JPCA-4591 describes the conductive materials needed to build printed circuits. It’s the second IPC standard for this rapidly emerging field.

November 12, 2012

By Terry Costlow, IPC online editor

The concept of printing conductors onto a range of substrates has been around a long time, but it’s only now beginning to see burgeoning acceptance. IPC is accelerating this growth with standards that will make it easier to specify and build printed electronic circuitry.

IPC has now completed IPC/JPCA-4591, Requirements for Printed Electronics Functional Materials, the second in the series of operational level standards from the IPC Printed Electronics Initiative. It sets the criterion for a broad range of functional conductive materials that will be printed onto substrates.

The new document complements IPC/JPCA-4921, Requirements for Printed Electronics Base Materials, the substrate standard that was completed earlier this year. Together, they form the foundation for an industry that’s beginning to emerge rapidly.

“Cadillac, among other automotive innovators, is introducing printed electronics for a touch-sensitive center stack display and Boeing is using it for electrochromic windows in its 787,” said Marc Carter, IPC’s director of technology transfer. “There are also a number of medical products that take advantage of the low costs of printed electronics, which are cheap enough for single-use throw-away products. This gives you a sense of the broad possibilities this technology offers.”

Though a handful of companies have produced products without standards, Carter noted that the specifications will provide common specifications and definitions that form the infrastructure necessary for broadening the marketplace. “We’re still in the early stages of this market,” Carter said. “Standards will make it easier for companies to specify what they want and find companies that can build it.”

The additive processes make it possible for printers to begin producing electronic circuits that will have the low costs associated with paper products. The conductive inks can be printed onto a range of substrates that no longer need to be flat. The ability to print on curved surfaces makes it possible to put thin displays and controls on vehicle dashboards, subway pillars or other unusual areas.

“Another aspect of printed electronics that catches the imagination is that it combines the expanding science of nanomaterials in novel ways to create new applications not easily achieved by more traditional mean.,” Carter said.

Printed electronics provides many benefits beyond low costs and the ability to print on many different substrates that can have odd shapes. Additive processes often have fewer steps, simplifying manufacturing, and they eliminate the need for harsh etches and other materials used in subtractive processes. That can reduce environmental concerns and eliminate time spent on regulatory documentation.

Many of the first generation materials in printed electronics are based on silver. IPC/JPCA-4591 goes further, and can accommodate standards for both the established material sets and reduced-cost/high-speed processing materials just entering the market place. In addition, it describes the properties of both conductive and semi-conductive materials in transparent and opaque applications. IPC’s Printed Electronics Initiative is developing a number of documents for this emerging industry. Quantifying the growth potential is difficult because the lack of standards is one cause for widespread fragmentation, as various groups use different definitions for printed products.

Many market research groups are predicting dramatic growth for this field, though their projections vary by huge amounts depending on their focus markets as well as the definitions used for these products.

IPC’s documents will help create common definitions and requirements that will foster this growth. Additional standards will address performance requirements and design issues. The trade association is also developing a road map that will help identify needs and strengths of this emerging field.

IPC members may request one free single-user download or hard copy of IPC/JPCA-4591, Requirements for Printed Electronics Functional Conductive Materials, by e-mailing within 90 days of the document’s publication. After that date, IPC members may purchase the standard for $36. The industry price is $72. For more information or to purchase a copy of IPC/JPCA-4591, visit IPC/JPCA-4591.