By Dr. Peter Harrop, IDTechEx
In Japan, a leading car manufacturer grows a car seat as a structure based on the principles of a bird bone – with extreme porosity yet containing plenty of strength while using almost no material. However, he does more than this: his 3D printer creates the heating elements and other electrics in the seat as it grows. Germany-based CoTexx molds a load-bearing aircraft aerofoil with knitted heating mesh sealed in the composite to do the de-icing. In the United Kingdom, Imperial College does something similar with two carbon fiber textiles with glass textile holding an electrolyte in between. In this way they make shaped load-bearing car bodywork that doubles as a huge supercapacitor. In the USA, NASA realizes that composite fuselages for aircraft do not conduct like the old aluminum ones and lightning can be catastrophic ― so they mold conductor patterns into the composite. These also act as antennas: electrically smart aerospace bodywork unfolding in many forms.
Taking a Closer Look
At first glance, this may all seem prosaic, but it is a leading technological mega-trend of this century with profound implications. It is structural electronics. Consider the most glamorous things that recently burst upon the scene, such as the MIT robot dog that jumps over obstacles, the Dyson robot vacuum cleaner that is as effective as a traditional model or the latest smart watch with its myriad features. Behind the dazzling exterior, they are made by 100-year-old design rules: buy components, connect them together and drop them in a box. Yes, those components are awesome: think of the sensors, integrated circuits and displays and the heroic software behind them. Nonetheless, components-in-a-box for electronics and electrics is equivalent to cooking dinner in a spaceship by lighting a wood fire: the future with an anachronism inside. That is about to change and that change will be rapid.
Consider the conventional car with its 30,000 parts fitted together and put into a mindless body. It is becoming much simpler as it turns into a pure electric car, making modernization with structural electronics far easier. TactoTek say their first 3D molded electrics will be seen in a volume-produced car soon. “Dumb” windshields being replaced by ones with embedded heaters and antennas was only a beginning. The company states: “TactoTek manufacturing process removes constraints on the traditional design so that products with great functionality and form factors can be delivered by the brands. TactoTek has made possible thin and light designs that are capable of incorporating electronics and structural plastics. It uses LEDs for advanced lighting systems, sensors, touch controls and ICs in rigid as well as flexible designs.” Be it lighting features, integrated circuits, controls, sensors or antennae, solutions that incorporate design and intelligence together that can be produced in rapid cycles are highly desirable, is its point.
We’re Closer Than You Think
Individual vehicle components are merging and vanishing. The BYD K9 is the best-selling pure electric large bus and it already has in-wheel motors and the option of a solar roof instead of a dumb one. Boeing, Airbus and others are starting to use Conformal Load-Bearing Antenna Structure CLAS and Smart Composite Actuators SCA in aircraft. Structural metamaterials as honeycomb will be used for antennas and electromagnetic manipulation, according to a researcher in one major car company.
The W. M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation, University of Texas at El Paso has developed what it calls Multifunctional Impact-Resistant Structural Batteries. By interrupting the 3D printing process and integrating electronics functionality into the structure, rapidly-developed, high-fidelity prototypes can be fabricated in order to capture and evaluate form and functionality simultaneously. In a collaboration between the University of New Mexico’s COSMIAC, Keck Center launched structural electronics in a CubeSat Satellite.
The Drayson electric racing car has a battery fitted into the aerofoil but BAE Systems has made a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) out of load-bearing battery material as a substitute for existing, dumb carbon-composite structural materials. Stewart Penney of BAE Systems declares, "There are number of people that will build a battery shaped like a beam, for example, but fundamentally that is just an odd-shaped battery, it isn't a structural battery. The beauty of what we've got is that, when it's fully developed, a company will be able to go out and buy what is a standard carbon-composite material, lay out the shape, put it through the curing process and have a structural battery," he said.
The Future of the Market by Design
Investors and technologists have much to contemplate here because structural electronics will disrupt the value chain. For example, it is well known that those making lithium-ion batteries or flat screen displays have a tough time whereas, earlier in the value chain, the materials suppliers prosper and later in the value chain the system integrators prosper. In Japan that graph is called “the smile.” Now add structural electronics ― and board-stuffing and product assembly are largely bypassed by the chemical and intermediate materials people. The smile just got deeper.
Design rules change. Components that do not swell and shrink and prematurely destroy themselves will be first candidates for vanishing into structures, not today’s batteries. That means supercapacitors and metal patterning of antennas, interconnects, capacitive controls and actuators and the chips as LEDs and integrated circuits are prime candidates for the benefits. In laboratories you already see supercapacitors as wallpaper, cable cladding, load-bearing printed circuit boards and bodywork.
Design rules will no longer dictate that supercapacitors are much larger and heavier than batteries if the supercapacitor vanishes into the structure and the battery does not. Now the race to make solid-state supercapacitors, batteries and other components can be seen as more than seeking miniaturization, longer life and non-flammability. In cars, structural electronics company T-Ink sees up to 40% space- and weight-saving, and IDTechEx anticipates up to ten times improvement in reliability and life from the structural alternative to plug-in lighting and to switches that move. With interconnects, antennas and other components, the saving is virtually 100%. And what can go wrong in a waterproof chunk of solid, sealed composite?
From the Bench to Benefit
From the point of view of the finished product, the benefits are many. Who wants a bus that holds ten fewer passengers versus one using structural electronics? Boeing has bird-strike detector patterns printed into the leading edges of some aircraft wings and complete smart skin over the whole aircraft will give it a nervous system mimicking that of a human. Call it real-time structural health monitoring and think of it in the medical prosthetic, mobile robot, smart bridge and building applications, too. Then who will settle for less?
For the military and highly critical missions, the distributed intelligence of structural electronics can confer redundancy and damage tolerance. For others, it makes many new things possible such as the whole of a car glowing in the dark and complete interior lighting when needed. Daimler has already created concepts like these and added photovoltaic skin on the outside. The body of a vehicle can become very smart, particularly when you realize that almost every component can now be made transparent. Some vehicles doing tasks that are not time critical, such as vineyard soil and plant monitoring, can have no battery and wake up like a lizard with the sun to perform their tasks, powered by smart photovoltaic skin.
The Nature of Things to Come
Certainly biomimetics – usefully copying nature - is alive and well. Consider that integrally electromechanical device the muscle. You could call it structural electronics. In nature it is used to change shape, to actuate and to propel. It is far more sophisticated than the artificial muscles we have started to design with electroactive polymers and dielectric elastomers. This story already involves mimicking bird bones though not yet the electric nerves integral within them; it involves smart skin as in nature and the bees’ honeycomb. For the future, do not look at the embarrassingly antediluvian guts of that computer, those wearable electronics or Internet of Things nodes. Sophisticated hardware? Try again. Look up at the creatures flying over you.
More information about this topic can be found in IDTechEx Research’s study of the world of “structural electronics” in its’ new report, “Structural Electronics 2015-2025: Applications, Technologies, Forecasts”. And learn even more in Santa Clara, Calif, November 18th-19th at the 2015 IDTechEx Show.