Wearable sensors capable of checking someone's heart rate or breathing may not rely on traditional microchip technology in the near future. Instead, the next generation of printed, flexible, and organic electronic sensors could enable new medical and athletic wearable devices in a market worth an estimated $244 million within a decade, according to market analysis firm Lux Research.
The forecast comes from a new report by Lux that envisions how such printed, flexible, and organic electronic (PFOE, they call it) sensors can best fit a future where tens of billions of wirelessly-connected devices form an "Internet of Things" that include smart building thermostats, smart cars, and wearable devices. The report identifies a $400 million market for PFOE sensors by 2024 in the likeliest scenario, but other scenarios have projections ranging from $96 million to $1 billion.
Such a market includes the estimated $244 million for wearables used by athletes and medical patients—the likeliest area for new PFOE sensors to gain traction over traditional CMOS sensors.
In both wearable cases, the sensors could monitor vital signs such as body temperature, heart rate, and respiration. Pressure sensors could even help develop proper balance in a golf swing or monitor elderly patients' walking patterns for signs of Parkinson's or multiple sclerosis.
Retail sector applications such as smart food packaging or monitoring store inventory represent the second largest opportunity for PFOE sensors, according to Lux, with an estimated market of $117 million by 2024. Printed electronics could provide a lower-cost option for flashy promotional product packaging, such as the light-up Cheerio box developed by Fulton Innovation in 2011. More critically, temperature sensors could monitor perishable foods and medical vaccines in storage. Chemical sensors might even sniff for signs of food gone bad and provide up-to-date information that beats static expiration dates.
Store managers might also be eager to take advantage of disposable, lower-cost PFOE sensors to track items on store shelves and see when they need to restock. Such item-level tracking of purchases might even enable customers to wheel a cart of goods directly to their car without stopping by the cashier. The PFOE sensors could also make large pressure sensor mats viable as a means of tracking customer shopping patterns within the store. Lux Research expects such retail sector opportunities to grow even faster than the wearable applications.
Smaller market opportunities exist for PFOE sensors in the transportation and building sectors with estimated markets worth $28 million and $11 million by 2024. Traditional CMOS sensors still have an advantage here because of their higher accuracy and reliability—traits that people generally want in their cars and buildings. But that has not stopped development of printed sensors that provide touch-based technologies for cabin control systems inside cars such as the Ford Fusion.
Overall, PFOE sensors look ready to compete against CMOS sensors based on their larger area coverage, lower cost, lower power needs, and disposability, says Lux. Organic sensors could gain an edge over silicon or metal-based sensors as countries increasingly worry about the problem of e-waste cluttering landfills.
But Lux Research expects power consumption to play a decisive role in differentiating "winners" from "losers" among the competing sensors: It will be more decisive than sensor accuracy, precision, or size. After all, the need to frequently change or charge batteries can lead to higher labor costs for building maintenance and annoy owners of individual wearable devices. The expense of the power component in disposable applications—such as smart food packaging—will also determine the economic viability of such applications.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.