PTR had the opportunity to visit LOPEC (Large-area, Organic & Printed Electronics Convention) last week in Munich, Germany. The conference took place from March 28-30 and covered the latest advancements in materials, manufacturing processes, and system integration for this emerging industry. More than 2,500 participants from 47 countries came to Munich for the three day event.

Our company had a two-pronged approach to the show, the first of which was to understand, from an automation and machine builder perspective, how big of an opportunity does printed electronics present. The second objective was to understand the state of the industry in terms of collaboration with emerging (Gen 3) solar technologies such as Organic PV (OPV) and Perovskites (PSC).

In short, the event showcased the application of large area electronics (LAE) very well – whether it was in the form of Gravure printing or roll-to-roll (R2R) processes.

However, when we take a closer look at the industry, there is a disconnect between the automation vendors and the technology supply-side. The automation vendors are ready to accept purchase orders but the go-to-market strategy from the technology side has not yet been achieved. Limited supply-chain infrastructure of the technology and high initial costs for mass production using the R2R process as compared to the traditional batch-process have created barriers to entry. In order for the low production cost advantage of LAE via the R2R process to come to fruition, economies of scale on the manufacturing side must be reached but this has yet to happen due to the lack of investment towards mass production.

The general consensus that PTR gathered is that mass production for LAE, including the R2R process, is still in its infancy, resulting in a disconnect between the research labs that are developing the technology itself and the manufacturing side. This can be further justified by the fact that only one tier 1 industrial automation supplier had a booth at the event – Bosch Rexroth. One of the R2R sub-applications discussed at the show was Gen 3 solar and the Solliance consortium.

R2R manufacturing

Heliatech’s OPV R2R manufacturing process.

More specifically for Gen 3 solar, perovskites had a significant presence at the show, championed through Solliance but also on the minds of many partners, including Bosch Rexroth, Coatema and materials providers, such as EMD(Merck) and Heraeus. The R2R technology has benefited from the learnings as a result of the newspaper industry whose R2R processes already run at 500m per minute. Although the base application components have been developed from the printing industry over the past several decades, the components and level of precision that is required in a LAE factory are much different from that of printing machinery. One of the interesting aspects learned during LOPEC was that the R2R implemented by Solliance could only touch one-side of the roll, creating an engineering challenge. This required additional expertise and engineering knowhow and shows that the production process cannot simply be ported over from the established printing industry. The process was initially tested at 10m per minute; however deposition and subsequent drying/annealing parameters were too negatively affected so they had to slow down to 5m.

Perovskites are certainly not alone and the slightly more established OPV looks poised to finally reach commercialization via Heliatek, who raised €82M in 2016 and is currently in the process of increasing output of its line. The important aspect to their approach is that they started with R2R in 2012 thus making expansion much easier to implement. Heliatek’s claimed lab efficiency is at 13.22%; however, this figure has not been certified and production efficiencies are at 8%. The efficiency ranks a bit below that of what Solliance (lead halide Perovskite) using R2R was able to achieve (see PTR’s impression), nevertheless without the stability issues plagued by its Gen 3 counterpart. Heliatek’s expansion plans, slated for a Q3 2018 production start, include a significant width improvement to 1.2m over their current production 30cm width and in rolls up to 2.5km long, improving costs considerably assuming throughputs are not affected too negatively.

Regardless, the success’ of Solliance and Heliatek bodes well for the future of R2R technology and its stakeholders, but PTR believes that the ‘take-off’ phase of mass production for LWE via the R2R process is years down the road.

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