In-Mold Electronics (IME) will one day become a well-established process with a well-developed ecosystem and a mature, easy-to-use design-to-product workflow. This process will become the basis of many novel structural electronic designs and products. This art-to-production platform transformation will take further time. It is often asked when and how this will happen. In this article, Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, Research Director at IDTechEx, will share some insights and analysis. This analysis is drawn from the IDTechEx report, In-Mold Electronics 2019-2029: Technology, Market Forecasts, Players, which is the result of years research into IME or associated technologies such as inks, pick-and-place, printing, and so on.
IME offers many clear benefits. It eliminates the board and structurally integrates the wiring and optical guides, saving space and enabling novel, thin, and light-weight 3D-shaped designs. As discussed herein, there are markets in consumer, white goods, and automotive interior and exterior. In the long term, IDTechEx believe that the market will grow. Indeed, the global research company forecast the market to exceed $1Bn by 2029 despite the slow take-off. For more information, please visit www.IDTechEx.com/IME.
The realization of IME, even up to this point, has required many innovations. Conductive inks here have been developed to withstand elongation, to adhere to PC or similar substrates, to match with other stack materials, and to survive the molding and in-field operational conditions. Special adhesives are being formulated to also withstand the process and operational conditions. Thin optical guides to spread the light have been demonstrated, opening new design features and allowing user feedback. Crucially, the ecosystem has accumulated know-how as it has spent years learning about the best design rules, the appropriate material stack, the optimized curing, forming and molding conditions, the matching IC package specs, and so on. Despite this, there is more to learn for scale-up high-yield production with long product lifetime, which is required in the absence of post-deployment repair opportunities.
The ecosystem is also coming together. Material suppliers have been very active, engaging early in the technology development cycle and pushing their formulation capabilities. The processing houses and contract manufacturers were slower to jump on board. This is now changing, though. Some IMD companies have installed IME equipment. Some membrane switch and similar firms have extended equipment set. Today, some have indeed invested in lines to service the automotive market from 2022 onwards. In automotive, tier ones and OEMs have engaged, developing many prototypes, some of which are now progressing through qualification. Naturally, though, not every OEM is yet convinced, and many are awaiting real market validation. To learn more about the ecosystem, please see the IDTechEx report, In-Mold Electronics 2019-2029: Technology, Market Forecasts, Players. This report outlines the latest progress and overviews all the key players, including material suppliers and beyond.
The first commercial product was released in 2012/2013, an overhead console in Ford. This success story soon turned sour as the product was recalled due to malfunction. The underlying reasons were never officially confirmed but were generally attributed to false reading caused by moisture ingress. This well-known story demonstrates the long-standing market pull. It also reemphasises that automotive is a major addressable market. The attached figure, adopted from Faurecia, demonstrates the addressable market in automotive interior. All these products potentially stand to benefit from better IME-enabled designs. The Ford story also demonstrates that to save costs, corners should not be cut by, for example, simplifying the material stack and reducing essential process steps. It also highlights the importance of materials whose properties exhibit no unexpected performance changes during the operation.
The market deployment is, this time around, likely to start with simpler products. One example is in the automotive exterior. Here, an emerging example is in the heaters embedded in light covers to accelerate defrosting when energy-saving LED lights are employed. Such products as retrofits are already available for purchase. Another automotive example is the interior. Here, transparent foils printed with fine metal mesh and conductive lines are conformed to a 3D shape to create a HVAC control panel. This process is very similar to a classic IME. Yet another interesting example is the use of carbon nanostructure (carbon nanobuds) to create 3D-shaped uniform transparent heaters for use in ADAS and autonomous driving perception sensors such as cameras or lidars (Figure 2). Another example is in a wearable/consumer product in which a simpler interconnect is molded (Figure 2: encircled with dotted red lines). This product was rumoured to already be in production, but IDTechEx analysts now believe this was not the case. Recently, a remote door lock switch was announced using IME (Figure 2: encircled with dotted red lines). In general, the first generation of products to have reached the market, or to have come very close, represents simpler manifestations of IME. Of course, in terms of prototypes, complex system incorporating multiple LEDs, light guides, many touch switches or slides, NFC antennas, etc. are demonstrated. These show the future development direction.
Overall, the market is beginning to change character towards product production. IDTechEx expects the market to show accelerated growth from 2023/2024 onwards, starting from simpler small-area devices then progressing towards more complex larger-area and higher-volume applications with more stringent reliability requirement. To learn more about this technology, key challenges and innovation opportunities, all the key players across the value chain, the latest prototype and products, as well as existing and future market forecasts please visit In-Mold Electronics 2019-2029: Technology, Market Forecasts, Players.
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