The growing market for conductive inks and pastes

Friday, 02 March, 2018

The growing market for conductive inks and pastes

Market research company IDTechEx has forecast that the emerging conductive inks and pastes markets will be worth over half a billion dollars in 10 years’ time.

‘Conductive Ink Markets 2018–2028: Forecasts, Technologies, Players’ provides a comprehensive view of the conductive inks and pastes market, giving detailed 10-year forecasts segmented by application and material type. The report is based on years of research, including interviews with more than 100 industry players in the past five years alone.

The report includes critical reviews of all the competing conductive inks and paste technologies including firing-types pastes, PTFs, laser-cut or photo-patterned pastes, nanoparticles, stretchable inks, in-mould inks, copper, copper/silver alloys, nanocarbon and more. The latest performance levels are outlined along with technology challenges, key suppliers, existing and emerging target markets, and forecasts where appropriate. There is also a special chapter on silver nanoparticles, as IDTechEx forecasts 2018 to be a pivotal year for this technology.

Recent and emerging trends

The conductive ink industry had a great year last year, according to the report, largely thanks to the record boom year in the photovoltaic industry driven by demand in China. This rising tide lifted everyone regardless of their market share standings. Indeed, many in the value chain have been working at or near full capacity to service this rising demand.

The industry is, however, still moving ahead with its diversification drive. Here, the industry seeks to find the next big thing, hoping to lessen its overreliance on the photovoltaic industry and other mature industries in which strong competitive pressures persist.

To this end, the suppliers had been developing as broad a product portfolio as possible seeking to plant their flags in nascent high-potential markets. This process is now in full swing, with several markets transitioning towards commercial fruition this year.

The touch-screen edge electrode market continues to be shaped by the perennial trend to narrow the bezel. This trend has already led to the introduction of photo-patterned and laser-cut pastes. The emphasis, however, has largely shifted onto cost, pushing suppliers to aggressively slash prices to keep market share, to deter new ink entrants and to fight off sputtering.

Stretchable inks have been in active commercialisation mode for several years. In this time, the number of suppliers globally has multiplied, eroding technical and price differentiation but also helping accelerate market creation. The industry has already launched and sold products and most suppliers expect further customer qualification this year.

In-mould electronics (IME) is transitioning towards commercial orders too. Conductive ink suppliers multiplied in the past few years, mirroring the developments on the stretchable ink front. The commercial emphasis shifted from seeding the market and demonstrating prototypes to proving volume production and reliability as well as to resolving potential IP issues.

Sprayed on-chip conformal EMI shielding coatings is also a hot area. Sputtered coatings have already been adopted by leading players, but now paste companies actively seek to provide a compelling alternative that is based on non-vacuum, low-CapEx, large-area and high-throughput spraying process. The engagement with small to mid-sized device makers, particularly in China, is highly active but the big question this year is whether a leading brand will qualify the technology.

Highly thermally conductive die attach pastes are in favour, as the rise of electric, connected and/or autonomous vehicles creates more demand for high-power and high-temperature electronics. A promising trend is now to use nano or hybrid silver fillers to reduce the sintering temperature and eliminate the need for external pressure. This technology is on the cusp of major success, and barring last minutes surprises, is likely to be adopted by electric vehicle producers this year.

The installed base of industrial aerosol machines is expanding, opening the door further to the sales of qualified inks in 3D antenna printing. Directly printed metal mesh has witnessed accelerated technological progress, overcoming its limitation to achieve sub 5 µm linewidths. Indeed, it is already in small-scale commercial production, but there is some way to go before it can become a leading market. Hybrid metal mesh continues with its stop-start progress, expanding into use cases such as transparent antennas for consumer electronics.

The installed base of hobbyist-level desktop PCB printers has expanded, but utilisation — thus material consumption — is low. The sales of final (vs beta) versions of professional multilayer printers has also started, but these are still in an early phase of market diffusion. The print-seed-and-then-plate approach in the PCB industry is also largely on hold due to the lack of a clear cost or performance benefit compared to incumbent processes. However, Cu inks printed PI substrates are actively being pushed for the FPCB applications. This approach may offer a cost advantage when surface coverage is low (<20%).

Cu is also making progress for RFID antenna printing although new suppliers still need to demonstrate production beyond lab scale. Multilayer ceramic capacitors (MLCC) also continue to be a sizable industry with sales into the trillions of units, creating a significant market for screen printed Cu (and Ni) powders. The printed digitiser market for consumer electronics did not grow as previously anticipated; however, printed large area digitisers, often based on Cu, are finding use in large-area interactive whiteboards.

3D printed electronics (3DPE) will remain an innovation opportunity front for low-temperature inks compatible with a variety of substrates, but progress will be subdued in sales of dedicated 3DPE printers. Printed large-area piezoresistive, capacitive and biosensors are set to become one of the largest constituents of the greater printed electronics industry. Despite technology improvements, printed transistor and memory will remain in search of applications. E-readers will accelerate transition towards large wall-sized displays, creating new demand for inks. Large-area LED arrays made with printing will slowly find their way into the market although competition from FPCB remains. Thin-film non-Si photovoltaic will likely see the commercial adoption of silver nanoparticles.

All in all, IDTechEx forecasts that these non-core and emerging markets will grow to become a $580 million market opportunity by 2028.

Image credit: ©

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