Loughborough University
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The impact of printed electronics on product design

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posted on 2018-04-24, 13:14 authored by Nicola York
Printed electronics (PE) is a disruptive but growing technology that is beginning to integrate its way into viable applications for product design. However, the potential for future impact of the technology on product design and the designer s role and contribution to this has yet to be established. Interest is increasing in the potential for product designers to explore and exploit this technology. Technologies can be seen as being disruptive from both a business, and an adoption point of view. For a business, changing from one technology to another or incorporating a new technology and its production processes can be difficult if they already have their suppliers established and existing relationships in place. Understanding and adopting a new technology can be challenging for a business and individuals working within an established industry as it can cause many questions to be raised around its performance, and direct comparison with the technology they already have in place. However, there have been many technologies that could be seen as disruptive in the past, as they offered an alternative way of working or method of manufacture, such as Bluetooth, 3D printing, and automation (manufacturing/assembly/finishing), etc., and their success has been dictated by individual s perception and adoption of the technology, with their ability to see the worth and potential in the technology. Cost comparison is also an important aspect for a business to consider when choosing whether to change to a new technology or to remain with their existing technology, as changing can disrupt the manufacturing line assembly of a product, and direct cost comparisons of components themselves, such as the cost of buying silicon components in bulk verses printing the components. The new technology needs to offer something different to a product to be worth implementing it in a product, such as its flexible form or lightweight properties of printed electronics being of benefit to the product over what a silicon electronic component/circuit could offer (restricted to rigid circuit boards), the functionality/performance of the components themselves also need to be considered. Performance, availability and maturity of the technology are some of the essential aspects to consider when incorporating a new technology into a product and these can be evaluated using a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale. Interest in the stage of development for a technology lies not only with designers; industry and academia also contribute to knowledge by playing a central role in the process of determining a TRL scale that is universally recognised. However, a TRL separation issue occurs between academia (often the technology only reaching an experimental proof of concept stage, a lower number on the TRL scale indicating that the technology is at an early stage of development) and industry (not considering technology for commercialisation until it reaches a stage where there is a demonstration of pre-production capability validated on economic runs, a much higher number on the TRL scale - indicating that the technology is at a much more advanced stage of development). The aim of this doctoral research was to explore the contribution of PE to product design. The researcher experienced the scientific development of the technology first-hand, and undertook a literature review that covered three main topics: 1) printed electronics (the technology itself), 2) impact (approaches to assessing impact and methods of judging new technology) because together they will identify the state of the art of printed electronics technology, and 3) education - educational theories/methods for designers - studying how designers learn, explore different methods in educating them about new technologies, and start to find appropriate methods for educating them about printed electronics technology. A knowledge framework for PE technology was generated and utilised to produce a taxonomy and TRL scale for PE and confirmed by PE expert interview. Existing case studies in which PE technology had been presented to student designers were investigated through interviews with participants from academia and industry to solicit perception and opinions on approaches for the effective communication of PE knowledge to student designers within an educational environment. The findings were interpreted using thematic analysis and, after comparing the data, three main themes identified: technical constraints, designer s perspective, and what a designer is required to do. The findings from the research were combined to create an educational approach for knowledge transfer aimed specifically at meeting the needs of product designers. This resulted in the need for PE technology to be translated into both a visual and written format to create structure and direct links between the technological elements and their form and function in order to facilitate understanding by designers. Conclusions from the research indicate that the translation of this technology into an appropriate design language will equip designers with accessible fundamental knowledge on PE technology (i.e. electrical components: form, function, and area of the technology), which will allow informed decisions to be made about how PE can be used and to utilise its benefits in the design of products. The capabilities and properties of this technology, when paired with product design practice, has the capacity to transform the designs of future products in terms of form/functionality and prevailing/views towards design approaches with electronics. If exposed to a variety of PE elements ranging across different TRLs, designers have the capacity to bridge the TRL separation issue (the gap between academia and industry) through their ability to create design solutions for an end user and provide a commercial application for the technology.


Loughborough University, Design School.



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© Nicola York

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This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.


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