Printed electronics support the mobility transition

In times of change, the automotive and aviation industries are turning to printed electronics. With the focus topic of Mobility, LOPEC, the international exhibition and conference for flexible, organic and printed electronics, will showcase innovations for traffic on land and in the air.

“At LOPEC, we will see several examples of how organic and printed electronics have made the leap into the automotive sector,” announces Klaus Hecker, Managing Director of the industry association and LOPEC co-host OE-A (Organic and Printed Electronics Association). Automobile manufacturer Audi, for example, is already equipping its Q5 and A8 models with OLED tail lights. The organic light-emitting diodes, OLEDs for short, are exciting because they shine flat, not in spots like traditional LEDs. The new tail lights also increase security in traffic, as they have functions such as approach detection. Audi will be showing off the innovative OLED tail lights in the LOPEC Innovation Showcase.

“Printed electronics offer automotive construction added value that is by no means exhausted,” emphasizes Klaus Hecker. OLEDs, for example, are becoming increasingly important in the trend towards autonomous driving, because they make interaction with other road users easier. Since OLED lights are made up of several panels with individually addressable segments, in future they could also display warning signals for traffic jams or fog, arrows and other symbols as well as short messages. With transparent OLEDs, the car window could even be turned into a display.

Versatile bodyworks and new heating concepts for electric cars

BMW has now realized the dream of bodyworks that change color at the press of a button, using a technology that’s already familiar to e-book readers. It is technically possible to realize at least black, white and gray tones, as the car manufacturer recently showcased with their BMW iX Flow concept car. The versatile vehicle is coated with a film that contains microcapsules with electrically charged white and black pigments. At the press of a button, they can mix and change the color of the bodywork. Because the film is applied in individually controllable segments, it is even possible to conjure up patterns on the outside of the vehicle. Pete Valianatos from the company E Ink will present the technology on March 24 at the LOPEC Conference, where he will also discuss self-tinting windows and electronic license plates.

“The color changing bodywork is more than just a gimmick,” says Wolfgang Mildner, General Chair of the LOPEC Conference and CEO of the consulting and technology company MSWtech. “If you change the color of your car from black to white on a hot day, you save energy for the air conditioning.” Likewise, changing to black in winter reduces the consumption of heating energy. This is particularly helpful for electric cars, as their engines produce no noteworthy waste heat for heating up the interior. And heating energy from the battery reduces the range of the electric vehicle.

One solution is offered by printed electronics with heating foils that are already installed in car seats. LOPEC exhibitor Louisenthal manufactures transparent heating foils that can be integrated into side cladding, steering wheels and any other vehicle components – an effective heating concept as the heat is generated exactly where it’s wanted. In Munich, LOPEC exhibitor Henkel from Düsseldorf will present conductive inks for printing heating elements such as these that also have an impressive integrated security feature: The maximum temperature can be controlled via the composition of the ink so that the heating elements automatically switch off at 60 degrees Celsius, for example, and prevent overheating. The company has already developed an entire series of inks with predefined temperature limits.

Printed sensors in the steering wheel, seats etc.

“Electric mobility is one of the main drivers of printed electronics,” says Wolfgang Mildner, but he adds that the decision for printed electronics is not driven by technology alone: “More and more often, designers are demanding a departure from conventional electronics.” Vehicle designers are increasingly wanting to replace things like chunky buttons and switches with smart surfaces that have curved displays and integrated touch functions.

Operating modules with printed sensors have already made their way into series production. Volkswagen, for instance, are equipping the steering wheels on their ID.3 and ID.4 vehicles as well as several Golf models with these touch panels as standard. The sensors are printed with silver ink as a fine metal grid on a film that is applied to the control element from behind and installed in the middle section of the steering wheel. Bavarian companies PolyIC and Kunststoff Helmbrechts were involved in the development of the VW steering wheel, which will be presented in the LOPEC Innovation Showcase. Wolfgang Clemens from PolyIC will talk about the manufacture and integration of the sensor films in his conference talk on March 22. Christoph Ernst from Kunststoff Helmbrechts will present a similar touch panel that is integrated into the car door at the LOPEC Conference on March 24.

In addition to touch sensors, you can also find many other sensors in a modern vehicle. They record environmental and engine parameters, and control airbags, ABS systems and much more. Many systems are still based on conventional electronics, but printing processes are increasingly asserting themselves in sensor technology. Among other things, LOPEC exhibitor IEE from Luxembourg is already manufacturing printed seat occupancy sensors by the millions. Together with seat manufacturer Recaro, the LOPEC exhibitor InnovationLab from Heidelberg, Germany, has also developed a car seat with integrated printed sensors. The seat registers vehicle occupants and differentiates them from other objects. It reminds passengers to fasten their seatbelt and deactivates the airbag if it recognizes a child seat.

InnovationLab will also present a sensor solution that helps to optimize batteries for electric cars at LOPEC. The system consists of films with printed temperature and printed sensors that are placed between the individual battery cells. They monitor the charging and discharging process, measure the state of charge and recognize when the battery is behaving unusually. Until now, this kind of data from inside the battery was very difficult to access, but is essential for increasing the performance and service lives of batteries.

On land and in the air: Mobility growth market

These examples show one thing: Printed electronics already play a key role for the automotive industry. “Vehicle manufacture is already one of the largest markets for flexible and printed electronics,” says OE-A CEO Klaus Hecker, who predicts further growth in this area. Automobile manufacturers are just getting started. Light electronic components are also particularly in demand in air travel, as Alois Friedberger from Airbus will underline at the LOPEC Conference on March 23. The aviation industry expects great advantages from printed electronics, and not just in terms of light weight and simplified installation. Above all, the safety-relevant redundancy is easier to implement with printed electronics, because several sensors can be integrated cost-effectively in a thin film.

Whether on land or in the air, printed electronics provide more comfort, security and sustainability in transport. There is no better place than LOPEC in Munich to find out what has already been commercially implemented, what innovations are about to be launched on the market and how printed electronics will shape tomorrow’s mobility.