Stretchable conductive pastes: a challenging market segmentation

May 06, 2019 //By Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh
Stretchable conductive inks have been in the commercialization mode for multiple years now. Arguably, it all started as a technology push. The big trend at the time was wearable technology and e-textiles. And, naturally, ink and paste suppliers did not want to be left behind.

Compelling proposition
Conductive ink technology can offer a compelling proposition to this market. It is intrinsically an adaptable technology. This is an important capability because the requirements are varied and, in most cases, unknown even by the users. In fact, many variables exist including the substrate of choice, the degree of stretchability, the washability, the conductivity level, the cost, and so on.
An important advantage of ink technology is that it can be customized to cater to a broad spectrum of needs. This is a technological advantage that outperforms alternative choices with rigid and fixed performance characteristics. To exploit this, the suppliers should develop the organization capability and mindset to offer customized solutions.

Ink solutions can also be applied after a textile product has been manufactured following normal processes. In other words, the integration of the paste-based electronics need not interfere with the production of the textile part itself. This is possible because inks could be laminated, and heat transferred much as graphics are today. There is also ongoing innovation on the use of sacrificial layers.

Market and technology challenges
An ink or paste however is not a final product. To commercialize these solutions, the value chain therefore had to be first established. This has been (almost inevitably) a slow process. The product ideas have often been vague with uncertain prospects. This increases the risk of ink suppliers to go all-in into the development process. The paste amount per item is also small and likely to remain so. Inevitably, this necessitates a business model in which the ink is used across millions of items developed and sold by many.
The market exploration and segmentation phase was, and is not, straightforward. The paste-based solution is not a replacement of an existing component. New products need to be designed, created, and commercialized. This demand creation process requires patience as well as the organizational capability to conduct detailed strategic market segmentations.

Left: snapshot of the market split in e-textiles in 2018. It shows that the majority of the market lies outside consumer use cases, e.g., fashion and sports/fitness. Right: Trend in growth of e-textiles. Source: IDTechEx Research.


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