Are Injection-Moulded Electronics About to Take Over?

2 months ago by Emily Gray-Fow

Injection-moulded electronics and injection-moulded structural electronics have been around for a while, but new manufacturing techniques and materials are set to see increased the technology’s commercial viability and new use cases.

In fact, a recent IDTechEx report shows that products using injection-moulded electronics (IME) and conductive inks are set to see more use in the electronics manufacturing industry by offering engineers the opportunity to build products with embedded circuitry in ways that haven’t been possible until now.

 

What are Injection-moulded Electronics?

Injection-moulded electronics is a technology for integrating electronics with the actual structure of a product. Again, this isn’t a new idea, and in the past, it has required engineers to rely on their printing of flexible sheets of electronics with the use of conductive inks. These sheets are then applied to the surface of various parts of the completed product.

Using e-inks and conductive film technology—namely to create a 2D film that could be applied to the surface of a product—IME offered the chance to build products that were much lighter, thinner, and more architecturally-pleasing than those that rely on traditional circuitry.

The technology looked promising. Unfortunately, however, the latter was fraught with issues, and IME was set aside in favour of more reliable technologies.

The potential uses for injection-moulded electronics and injection-moulded structural electronics (IMSE) nevertheless meant that this setback didn’t bring the industry to a halt. At the same time, improvements in manufacturing techniques and researchers’ determined efforts to produce working prototypes ensured that the technology never quite went away.

 

Circular device created through injection-moulded methods.

An example of injection-moulded electronics, which has been implemented within a circular device, due to its flexibility. Image Credit: TactoTek.

 

Using e-inks and conductive film technology—namely to create a 2D film that could be applied to the surface of a product—IME offered the chance to build products that were much lighter, thinner, and more architecturally-pleasing than those that rely on traditional circuitry.

The technology looked promising. Unfortunately, however, the latter was fraught with issues, and IME was set aside in favour of more reliable technologies.

The potential uses for injection-moulded electronics and injection-moulded structural electronics (IMSE) nevertheless meant that this setback didn’t bring the industry to a halt. At the same time, improvements in manufacturing techniques and researchers’ determined efforts to produce working prototypes ensured that the technology never quite went away.

 

What Has Changed the Outlook for Injection-Moulded Electronics?

Now that 3D printing has fully established itself in the manufacturing sector, we no longer have to rely on applying pre-printed sheets of circuitry to an almost-finished product. Instead, with the right printer technology, it’s possible to embed pre-printed 2D sheets of circuits within a structural 3D printed component. 

This allows engineers and designers a lot of flexibility in their designs that weren’t previously possible. The development of practical techniques for creating injection-moulded structural electronics (IMSE) offers a lot of potential. 

The manufacturing materials and processes used for printed electronics has also advanced a huge amount in the last few years, making the printed circuits that are embedded in these 3D structural components much cheaper and more reliable. 

Developments have made it possible to include things like flat touch controls on the surface of the final product. IMSE also offers the chance to create products with novel shapes out of lightweight materials, while still incorporating electronics.

 

3D printing injection molded enclosure.

An injection-molded enclosure. Image Credit: PartSnap.

 

What are the Advantages of IME/IMSE?

Injection-moulded electronics and injection-moulded structural electronics offer designers and engineers the opportunity to create aesthetically-pleasing, lightweight, and robust designs that incorporate electronics and touch controls (example pictured above) in ways that aren’t possible when using traditional techniques. Looks are a big factor—with the option to add beautifully designed flat touch controls to almost any surface being a big feature.

The main use cases for IME and IMSE at the moment include automotive, wearables, appliances, and building automation. Any places where aesthetically beautiful controls or lightweight, durable electronics with novel shapes are surely going to prove good places for this technology to take hold.

 

How Can I Add IME/IMSE to my Designs?

At the moment, there are some big players that are leading the market. However, there are also many smaller firms specialising in IME and IMSE, and the market in general is starting to take off accordingly. According to the said research report by IDTechEx, there’s still a steep learning curve when it comes to developing products that use injection-moulded electronics.

Sourcing 2D components to join together with printed circuits can be challenging, with each new product requiring a lot of development effort and expenditure. This means the technology is best suited to high-value, high-volume products that will effectively let their manufacturers recoup such high development demands.

There isn’t, as yet, any sort of modular library of components to make the design process easy. If you have the tenacity and the time to create a design using IME or IMSE, you could reap the benefits of being an early adopter with a product that really stands out in the minds of consumers.

 

Injection molded electronics implemented in wood pieces.

Injection-moulded structural electronics may be implemented for natural surface finishes, such as wood vaneer (pictured). Image Credit: TactoTek.

 

How is the Future of Injection-moulded Technologies Looking?

Injection-moulded and injection-moulded structural electronics are set to become a common sight in the near future as manufacturing techniques continue to improve. It’s unlikely that your workplace will be producing these products themselves, but there are an increasing number of manufacturers out there able to handle these products.

However, because the technology is still more expensive than traditional methods of manufacturing, it’s likely we’ll only see it in a few high-end consumer products in the near future. All in all, if you have an idea for a particular design that needs lightweight, thin, or unusually-shaped electronics to work—then it’s definitely worth a look.

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