By Dr. Florian Ullrich, Head of Business Development at InnovationLab
In electronics manufacturing, where energy consumption and toxic materials are essentially unavoidable, there is always going to be some level of waste. However, is there a way that companies could measurably further minimize the impact of their production on the environment? This article looks at how printed electronics can make a significant difference, and how a breakthrough in copper inks is now opening up new possibilities for achieving ambitious ESG goals.
The ESG challenge
With the climate crisis accelerating, there is increasing pressure on businesses to reduce the impact of their activities on the world around them. While social responsibility and environmental compliance have been part of most corporate strategies for many years, today there is a new added focus on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) principles.
ESG aims to measure a business’s impact on society and the environment, and to assess how transparent and accountable it is. This is no longer just window-dressing – a company’s ESG status is likely to have an impact on its financial viability and ability to secure funding or grow its value.
Rating agencies such as Sustainalytics, S&P and MSCI have created specific indexes, for example, the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index and the MSCI ESG Universal Index, which show how much risk companies are exposed to in light of compliance with ESG criteria. These indexes are subsequently used by investment managers as an input factor for deciding how to balance their investment portfolios.
In the electronics industry, achieving a positive ESG profile means lowering a business’s energy, carbon and pollution footprint – especially in low-end, high-volume applications. C-level electronics executives are now looking for solutions aimed at significantly reducing the environmental impact and improving the financial performance of their businesses.
Pressure is also exerted up and down the supply chain, with large customers requiring their partners and suppliers to improve their environmental performance. For example, Apple has recently called on its global supply chain to “take new steps to address their greenhouse gas emissions and take a comprehensive approach to decarbonization,” and Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, further added that, “We’re looking forward to continued partnership with our suppliers to make Apple’s supply chain carbon neutral by 2030.” Apple is explicit in saying that it will choose to work with suppliers that are measurably reducing their environmental impact, and other key OEMs are taking a similar approach.
How printed electronics help to achieve ESG targets
While electronics manufacturers can make incremental improvements across many aspects of their operations, there are a few areas where they can greatly benefit from a step change. The printed electronics technology is a game-changer since it is an additive manufacturing process, compared to the subtractive processes of conventional electronics production.
Using printed electronics significantly reduces the amount of material waste, as well as lowering energy consumption. It also enables the use of new substrate types, and even biodegradable substrates such as paper. For example, paper-based RFID antennae are durable in use and biodegradable at the end of their lifecycle.
One truly innovative example of printed electronics technology is the conductive nano-copper inks developed by Copprint. These inks enable additive manufacturing of circuit boards and are a much greener option than the hazardous, polluting and more expensive alternative of etching. When compared to standard silver inks, the copper printing enables dramatic cost savings and also a 40X carbon footprint reduction.
“Until now, sensor fabrication has been performed either by means of an etching process with long turnaround times and a large MOQ or by means of costly printing using conductive silver pastes”, said Ofer Shochet, CEO and Founder at Copprint. “Copprint copper inks enable sustainable, non-polluting, low-cost printing, outperforming etching and silver across all the metrics. InnovationLab enables R&D, scale-up and manufacturing of printed electronics using conductive copper inks.”
Printed electronics in practice
The technology of printed electronics sounds perfect in principle, but how can it be put into practice?
InnovationLab has been a leading industry partner for printed electronics since 2008 and has been instrumental in transforming graphical printing technology into scalable electronics production equipment, with a focus on low-end, high-volume products for achieving maximum impact on sustainability.
It supports its customers as a ‘one-stop shop’ for printed electronics layout and design. As printed electronics is an additive manufacturing technology, design rules may differ significantly from those in conventional PCB manufacturing – InnovationLab uses its experience to enable customers to make best use of the greater design flexibility of printed electronics. Starting with a customer’s problem description, the company develops solutions that can enable new product features or a better fit of cost and sustainability performance, for example through a wider choice of substrates.
Customers from the automotive, healthcare, consumer and industrial electronics and aerospace industries all receive comprehensive support starting from proof of concept and prototyping, through product development and process scale-up, to high-volume manufacturing of printed electronic components.
InnovationLab is a preferred partner for suppliers of advanced printed electronics materials, such as copper ink. These suppliers choose to work with InnovationLab because it has the unique capability to rapidly co-develop and qualify new materials in scaled production processes.
Utilized substrates include FR-4, Polyimide, PET, PEN and other plastics but also paper, starting at a substrate thickness of a few microns and going up to 250 µm. With more flexibility in substrate choice, customers can benefit from the “best fit” for sustainability and cost efficiency.
Localization of production is another important factor that impacts ESG criteria. Local production reduces transportation impact, especially on low-end, high-volume products. While supply constraints may make supply chain managers choose local production in Europe and North America, localization for conventional electronics production is often associated with higher costs resulting from the more stringent environmental protection policies in these jurisdictions. For printed electronics, this ceases to be an issue, since these production processes have a lower environmental impact.
Scaling up to high-volume production
InnovationLab works together with Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG, the world market leader in the manufacturing of printing presses. Printed electronics production is easily scalable and can be localized for situations where high-volume production is required close to end customers. As Michael Kröger, managing director of both InnovationLab and Heidelberg Printed Electronics
(HPE), points out, “The partnership between InnovationLab and HPE is a unique combination, offering the benefits of printed electronics at scale with a smooth transition from design to series production.”
To enable high-volume manufacturing, roll-to-roll (R2R) mass production equipment is used early on in product development. Rotary screen and flexo printing are used for applying conductive traces and insulating materials on the front and rear sides of the substrate and enable four-layer designs.
For qualified processes, the turnaround time for the delivery of manufacturing samples can be only a few weeks from the first interaction to shipment, including product and tool layout. When necessary, InnovationLab can source and qualify new materials and processes for its customers, directly from its established network of trusted material, machine and tooling partners.
Production is located in Germany, and meets ISO9001 quality standards with key equipment operated in a clean-room environment. To further improve convenience, products can be delivered either as complete rolls ready for customers to assemble and convert, or as cut-out pieces for sheet-based processing by the customer.
Executing an ESG strategy is a tough challenge for any business, particularly in an industry as environmentally demanding as electronics production, where waste and toxic materials are part of everyday life. By adopting printed electronics techniques, companies can achieve substantial reductions in the environmental impact of their production processes. This is a big step towards improving ESG performance – while concurrently reducing production costs.
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Founded in 2008, InnovationLab GmbH is a one-stop shop for printed electronics, with a focus on flexible pressure sensors, as well as temperature, moisture and gas sensors, and the capability to design and produce fully integrated hardware/software systems. The company offers highly customized solutions and supports high-volume production at two manufacturing sites in Germany, providing hands-on support to its customers throughout the entire product value chain, from concept to bulk production of printed functional products. InnovationLab provides state-of-the-art infrastructure along with comprehensive expertise in materials, processes and printing technologies to develop novel products. InnovationLab also supports numerous research and industrial partners at its lab and fabrication facility, an interdisciplinary environment featuring 6200 m2 of usable space for production, development and offices, including 700 m2 state-of-the-art cleanrooms. For more information, see https://www.innovationlab.de/en/printed-electronics/