Global IMD supplier Advanced Decorative Systems (ADS) and its customer JW Speaker, which won the 2018 IMDA Best of Show and Best Injection-Molded Durable Part, created one of the first production applications of IME – in-mold electronics or “plastronics” (at left). Their solution to the problem of LED-based vehicle headlights not generating enough heat to defrost themselves in winter driving conditions features a layer of polycarbonate film onto which a conductive heating element has been printed prior to in-molding into the headlamp lens. The technology is pushed even further with the inclusion of the electronic components, which control the heating cycle of the lamp and feature a specially designed connector system, to access these embedded electronics.
The technology is no longer young. Its successful realization however still resembles a black art. We believe that in time the technology can become an accessible platform technology. Once this occurs, numerous products can be designed and manufactured using IME in diverse sectors including automotive, white goods, consumer electronics, and others. Basically, IME can become the method of choice when it makes sense to integrate relatively simple electronics with structural parts. To consider this scenario consider the PCB industry which is an accessible technology that underpins the electronic industry.
In this article we describe the current and the future (potential) state of affairs, highlighting how a transition can take place to evolve the technology from a black art method towards an accessible manufacturing platform. We will also look at the roles that different players in the value chain are fulfilling that could aid with enabling this transition. This article draws from the recent IDTechEx Research report, In-Mold Electronics 2019-2029: Technology, Market Forecasts, Players. This report finds that the market will exceed $250 million by 2024. It provides a detailed assessment of the materials, processes, products and prototypes, application and markets for IME and multiple rival technologies such as molded interconnect devices (MID) or aerosol deposition. Furthermore, this report provides application-segmented ten-year market forecasts and overviews of the key companies across this emerging value chain.
The current state of affairs First let us consider the current state of affairs. The know-how is being accumulated in a few hubs, but it is not yet delocalized and spread into a global value chain. The design process is complicated. The user does not know the possibilities and limitations and has few well-established guidelines and tools to deploy. The components or parts in IME are not module- or library-like. The developers must spend great effort each time to select the appropriate parts and materials, and match component performance with design possibilities. The producer needs to overcome a steep learning curve each time it wants to develop a product. The producers must also develop a highly optimized process which tolerates near-zero defects as post-production repair is not readily possible.
These challenges significantly increase the product development time, effort, and thus cost. This limits near-term prospects to (a) high-volume applications justifying the risk and timeline of development; (b) really simple and low-complexity products; and (c) companies that view IME as a strategic production competency and invest in learning it even without having specific products in mind.
The future state of affairs
The future state will, however, plausibly be very different. The design and production knowhow will be highly spread across the value chain. The designers will be able to deploy software and other design tools to rapidly design products. These tools will provide access to libraries of functionalities and design guidelines. The accumulated industry know-how will make prototyping easy and fast, and the community will become more experienced in executing rapid lab-to-fab transitions. The menu of available IME-compatible parts will expand. Here, 'parts' include substrates, functional and graphical pasts, attachment adhesives, ICs, LEDs, and so on. The rigid parts today are all developed for other industries and force-fitted into IME designs. In the very long-term future, if volumes are large enough, special versions might be developed. This could build on the work taking place to enable flexible ultrathin IC for flexible hybrid electronics.
Can this transition take place?
This transition will open up the market. It will turn the technology into a platform that will enable its own demand creation. It would be like the deployment of PCBs in making electronics or the use of digital printing in publication. This prospect is very appealing, but is it realistic and feasible?
We think there is no fundamental barrier. In fact, it represents a natural progression of the state of the technology. The industry has had a decade or so of experience. Multiple materials are available, and many suppliers are active. There is good know-how in terms of stack design and production process management. The industry also knows what trade-offs not to make in scaling up pilot lines to mass production.
A new wave of commercial products is arriving. Despite this, the industry requires one or more major success stories. Some users remain unconvinced even in sectors such as automotive. Questions over cost of production persist especially in segments where pennies matter like in the whitegoods sector. These are not fundamental barriers or showstoppers though. Similar challenges and uncertainties are to be found in commercializing nearly every new technology especially those involving a significant change in production process.
So what are the different players doing to make this transition possible? Material suppliers need to expand and optimize their portfolio of IME materials. The portfolio approach is a strategic imperative. It offers users a full solution, shortening their development time. And it offers suppliers some degree of lock-in protection and switching barriers. The substrate suppliers must ensure that they remain in the qualification process. PC is the common material of choice today, but it does not forever have to be. Indeed, alternatives are emerging that seek to offer sufficient formability whilst beating PC on cost, solvent resistance, and other features. Moulding material suppliers too need to invest in R&D to develop tailored materials that relax the process conditions. The benefits will propagate back into the value chain: the conditions that pastes have to withstand will be relaxed; the processing conditions become easier and thus yield will likely improve; etc. Companies capable of screen-printing functional inks, e.g., force sensor makers or membrane switch producers, are also now considering evolving their businesses and adding forming capabilities. Some have taken the first initial steps whereas others are waiting on the fence for the technology to become more mature and de-risked. Large contract manufacturers have also been experimenting with the technology to build in-house knohow. The molding experience is also expanding. This too is non-trivial as often relatively voluminous parts are required (e.g., IME part can be a small subset of a major molded piece). Software firms are engaging with technology hubs (centers of know-how) to develop tools to streamline the design process. End users are also engaged in concept and product design.