IC the future of flexible electronics

As 2020 gets under way there is much speculation about predictions for the coming decade. In the flexible electronics industry we have seen dramatic developments during the last 10 years, so what can we expect in 2020 and beyond? And what role could innovative ICs, RFID, AI and machine learning play? Scott White, CEO at PragmatIC, shares his thoughts.

Intelligence in everyday items is finally a reality

First let’s start with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and flexible electronics. RFID is already well-established and growing rapidly in certain applications, for example apparel and footwear, with over 10 billion items tagged last year. At PragmatIC we expect even higher growth in a more diverse range of applications, addressing key business goals such as supply chain efficiency and traceability, as well as major global challenges including waste reduction.

One key sector is smart labels and smart packaging in FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), including beverages, food and personal care products. A recent report estimates that almost 21 billion items sold in 2030 will incorporate electronics to enhance the packaging. Adding intelligence to high volume everyday items relies on a step-change reduction in electronics cost, enabled by novel technologies such as PragmatIC’s ConnectIC family of flexible integrated circuits (FlexICs). Healthcare is another sector where we are seeing continually growing interest. Applications range from item-level tracking of medical consumables (including pharmaceuticals) and samples (e.g. pathology), to smart labels for medical devices. The potential applications are so vast that many may not even have been imagined yet!

Addressing the conundrum of complexity 

Now let’s turn our attention to other technologies. It is no surprise that we expect to see further development of highly integrated silicon ICs, supporting ever more sophisticated data centres and embedded control systems using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to help us chose our clothes, drive our cars, analyse our health symptoms and much more. These ICs will continue to become more complex, more expensive and more time-consuming to produce. This conundrum of cost, complexity and time-to-market is leading to the requirement for more customisation to reduce power consumption, improve performance and ultimately to reduce costs. Over time we expect that there will be more bespoke processors for applications where space and power are seriously constrained, including in wearables, smart packaging, digital healthcare, and interactive games. This is particularly relevant at the extreme edge of the Internet of Things – the Internet of Everything.

We predict that instead of using software to perform the late customisation of such electronic systems, these will instead evolve to leverage late-stage hardware optimisation. This will allow application development on a general-purpose architecture, which is then compressed into just enough gates and memory to perform the task required in the most cost-effective and power-efficient design. An example of such an approach is the work PragmatIC has been doing with Arm in creating a machine learning processor that performs a single task such as odour sensing. These ICs can be designed and manufactured, from application to fabrication, in less than 4 weeks. Coupled with the low tapeout costs of PragmatIC’s FlexIC Foundry, this will radically expand the opportunities for innovators to develop compelling solutions for exciting new applications.

To a trillion and beyond

At PragmatIC, we believe that this dramatic improvement in both time-to-market and cost-to-market for new products, combined with the highly scalable manufacturing capacity of our FlexLogIC fab-in-a-box systems, will pave the way for our vision of trillions of smart objects in the next decade.