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In-Mold Electronics: Multiple Players, Divergent Strategies

How do we communicate with our electronic devices? There are many different “human-machine interface (HMI)” options, ranging from the well-established (keyboard/mouse/mechanical switches) to somewhat newer developments such as capacitive touchscreens found on smartphones. As more and more devices around us acquire “smart” functionality, the ability to integrate HMI components in an elegant and cost-effective way is increasingly important.

Electronics in mold (IME) is one solution. It is an emerging manufacturing methodology for producing backlit touch surfaces, eliminating the need for expensive and possibly unsightly mechanical switches. With IME, conductive traces are printed on a flat substrate and electronic components such as LEDs can be mounted. This is then thermoformed and filled with injection molding to produce a smooth decorative component with capacitive touch functionality. These components are up to 70% lighter, take up less space, use fewer parts, and are easier to produce than the conventional mechanical switches they often replace. Automotive interiors are the main potential application (see graphic), but the technology also shows promise for consumer devices, especially given the easy-to-clean interface it produces.

Future (2032) IME Market Breakdown by Application. Source: IDTechEx

Within the IME space, many players are developing related technologies, producing components with similar appearance and functionality, but slight differences in manufacturing method to avoid intellectual property disputes. Here, IDTechEx explores some of the major players and their different business models, including the recent emergence of a new player: the French company Symbiose.
Arguably the most important developer of IME technology is Finland-based Tactotek. Since its inception in 2011, the company has raised nearly $100 million across multiple funding rounds. Its business model is based on technology transfer and licensing. The company has a pilot/low-volume production line in Finland, but works with several suppliers and OEMs to develop products and manufacturing capabilities using its intellectual property. This strategy is highly scalable but requires significant commitment from licensees.
However, licensing is not the only possible business model. Recently arrived on the IME scene, Symbiose is a French company from the CEA-LITEN research center. Bordeaux-based Symbiose has raised capital to build a factory and plans to manufacture IME parts in-house. This approach has the advantage of keeping technological know-how secret and simplifying quality control. Additionally, Symbiose will likely be able to service small volume orders, for companies that don’t want to license the technology themselves.
Another player developing the IME is E2IP, based in Canada. This company was formed from GGI and worked closely with the National Research Council of Canada. Its particle-free molecular ink is particularly noteworthy, which promises less resistance drop when conductive traces are stretched during thermoforming. E2IP primarily operates a vertically integrated business model, which spans from its molecular ink and component manufacturing to product design and development services.

In-mold electronics can be seen as an evolution of in-mold decoration (IMD), a well-established manufacturing approach for manufacturing curved decorative surfaces, such as the control panel on the front of the machine. washing or switchgear in cars – the difference being the introduction of electronics. Given the similarities, IME is an obvious opportunity for established IMD companies. An example is Advanced Decorative Systems (ADS), which supplies parts to the automotive industry, among others. It has taken a hybrid approach to IME, in which the conductive traces are deposited before thermoforming and injection molding, but not the SMD components. This strategy reduces process risk, as one of the main manufacturing challenges when producing IME parts is maintaining high throughput by ensuring that components such as LEDs are not damaged during the molding process. . On the other hand, one of the attractions of IME over existing approaches is that the integration of electronic and structural features reduces the number of parts, simplifying assembly and reducing weight.

Despite its benefits and substantial interest from material vendors who have developed IME-specific substrates and inks, IME that incorporates electronic components into the molded part has so far seen limited commercial adoption. However, there are many development projects in the field of automobiles and consumer devices. In addition, manufacturers of manufacturing equipment such as Arburg develop equipment for the mass production of IME components. Thus, IDTechEx forecasts an acceleration in sales of IME components from 2023/2024.

Additionally, IDTechEx suggests that the emergence of IME component developer and manufacturer Symbiose is a significant positive for IME adoption. Having multiple players, even with slightly different manufacturing processes, within the IME space lends credibility and reduces supply chain risk. Ultimately, IME will be considered a mature technology when ordering an IME circuit is as easy as ordering a conventional printed circuit board (PCB) today, rather than requiring a dedicated product design process like at present.

This article is based on the recently released IDTechEx report “In-Mold Electronics 2022-2032: Technology, Market Forecasts, Players” which covers both IME and competitor technologies for the production of decorative capacitive interfaces. It discusses manufacturing methodologies, material requirements, applications, and challenges in great detail. 10-year market forecasts by application sector, expressed both in revenue and in IME panel area, are provided, along with the associated material opportunities. Also included are several example application prototypes, a life cycle analysis of a typical IME component, and several company profiles based on interviews with start-ups and established companies. Further details and sample downloadable pages are available at www.IDTechEx.com/IME.
IDTechEx guides your strategic business decisions through its research, subscription and advisory products, helping you take advantage of emerging technologies. For more information, contact research@IDTechEx.com or visit www.IDTechEx.com.