Stretchable electronics is about more than just form factor

By guest author James Hayward, Senior Technology Analyst, IDTechEx

As electronic devices have found their way into every facet of modern life, those devices nearly always have one thing in common: they are rigid. Whilst it may be an overstatement to say that form factor has been limiting the growth for electronics, increasing competition and commoditization in key markets is forcing players to find new ways to differentiate. Some flexibility can be integrated at the device level, but ultimately, the core electronic components (ICs, PCBs, etc.) have been overwhelmingly rigid. The introduction of flexible electronics has begun to change this; changing substrate materials such that flexibility can be introduced has been critical to many common types of sensors, displays, interconnects and a variety of other components.

Stretchability takes this one step further; the ability for electronic systems to tolerate increasing amounts of strain has enabled new markets to develop, integrating electronics into places where it was previously impossible. This includes traditional areas such as infrastructure of industrial machinery monitoring, in commonly discussed emerging areas such as clothing and skin patches, or in more diverse areas from livestock or agricultural equipment to medical and surgical devices. IDTechEx’s report, Stretchable and Conformal Electronics, 2018-2028, lists examples of every different types of stretchable component and material across each of these application areas and more.

However, the development of stretchable electronics has done more than just facilitate the creation of electronic components that can tolerate higher levels of strain. As materials are developed for stretchable systems, other advantages can begin to emerge. For example, stretchable substrates like TPU or silicones can have other advantages over incumbent options such as PET or PEN, such as in ease of processing, physical performance or in the user perception of quality in the final system. Companies optimizing systems for strain tolerance may be surprised to discover, that there are other advantages that lead to commercial opportunities for new stretchable electronic systems.

Another potentially counter-intuitive conclusion from IDTechEx’s report emphasizes that stretchable electronic systems are not just about stretchable products. Tolerance of strain can be important in the final use case (e.g. with a sensor or interconnect that deforms), but can also be important within the manufacturing steps or in the design connotations for a device. For example, stretchable electronic materials are critical within processes such as thermoforming used for in mold electronics, a topic which has it’s own dedicated chapter and forecasting within the report. Stretchability can also have design connotations, allowing devices to move away from bulky designs necessitated by things such as battery or PCB shape, and enabling more comfortable, conformal and creative solutions matched to device purpose.

These themes are all captured, and reported in IDTechEx’s latest report on Stretchable and Conformal Electronics. IDTechEx have been following the gradual increase in commercial momentum around new physical properties in electronics for the last two decades. This has included coverage of technology trends such as printed and/or flexible electronics, detailed assessment of critical advanced material sectors such as conductive inks, substrates & barrier layers, graphene & carbon nanotubes, etc. and technology areas such as displays, sensors, haptics, etc. The result is the most detailed research report ever compiled on stretchable electronics, including reporting on activities from 87 companies and 25 research institutes, and market forecasting for 7 application and 15 material/component areas.