Printed Electronics Now Fall 2020: Flexible Electronics Is Proving to Be Ideal for Healthcare

November 4, 2020

COVID-19 pandemic has shown the increased need for sensors and wearables with conformable form factors.
By David Savastano, Editor, Printed Electronics Now  Article published originally via Printed Electronics Now Fall 2020 issue. The healthcare sector has been one of the most promising segments for flexible and printed electronics. With the devastating COVID-19 pandemic spreading further on a global level, the need for smart technology to take pressure off healthcare professionals and improve patient treatment could not be more evident. Since the beginning of 2020, there have been some excellent examples of new products being launched in response to the pandemic; products offering new possibilities for the future of healthcare and improved patient comfort.. Many companies are working on projects related to COVID-19. Henkel partnered with Quad Industries and Byteflies on their smart patch. Stijn Gillissen, Henkel’s global head for printed electronics, noted that Henkel is seeing the expansion of smart sensing devices being launched that increase the comfort of patients. "We are seeing growth in smart monitoring systems that are not attached to your body with cables, but are small in size, lightweight and have a form factor that is comfortable for the patient," Gillissen noted. "The COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of monitoring patients comfortably and preferably in their home environment." Gillissen stated that Henkel has worked on several projects related to healthcare, including test strips and EKG monitoring. "Henkel has partnered with a few companies on creating a smart health patch; an electronic sticker that you can attach to the body in order to measures temperature, respiration and heart rate," Gillissen reported. "It is currently being rolled out selectively in 10 hospitals in Belgium. We are also supplying materials for point-of-care devices that can be applied to create a disposable device that tests whether a patient has COVID-19 within a few minutes, in order to prevent further spread of the infection and to ensure sufficient patient treatment." Arne Castelyn, director of sales and new business development for Quad Industries, said that he is seeing many requests for electronic skin patches (ECG, EEG, sleep diagnostics), and also a growing interest in the use of washable (textile integrated) applications. "So far, all tests are very positive," Castelyn said. "Our customer, Byteflies, recently launched a dedicated website for the solution. "The COVID patch is a huge focus now since it’s going into commercialization right now," Castelyn added. "Other projects are mostly still in clinical trials and I can’t disclose those."
Dr. Manfred Mueller, Identiv COO and GM, Identity, noted that there have been reports of mass production of inexpensive printed, organic sensors, with the goal being to give companies the bandwidth to design and produce low-cost, customized pressure sensors on an industrial scale for the first time.
Wolfgang Mildner, founder of MSWtech, noted that flexible hybrid electronics and printed electronics for healthcare applications really got a push in the last months. "A lot of basic developments like sensors were already available," Mildner pointed out. "Combined with other building blocks, they are used for healthcare applications. Some products target medical applications, and some of them support some general health-related information. "COVID-19 triggered the creativity of people, like the smart mask application from the Holst Center or prior to COVID-19, the medically licensed nano silver material that now helps to build hygienic surfaces with functional elements," Mildner added. Keith McMillan, CEO of BeBop Sensors, noted that his company has been shipping products into the healthcare market for many years. One application is hospital beds, to measure where pressure is being applied, and how much. "Knowing the location and amplitude of pressure points could help determine if there is a potential for bedsores" McMillan reported. "Similarly for wheelchairs – when someone is sitting in a wheelchair for a very long time, the patient can become uncomfortable or even develop ‘bedsores.’ The bed or wheelchair designs can be modified to mitigate the problem. One customer is even using them in infant car seats for automobiles. uTrust SafeTemp Body Temperature Measurement Patch "More recently, we are seeing this trend wherein our pressure/force sensors are being combined with thermal and other sensors to create unique products – a fusion of sorts," McMillan added. Linh Le, CEO of Flextrapower, said that in the past few years, the fields of flexible hybrid electronic and smart clothing are coming together and sharing a lot of technical development overlap. "The boundaries between soft and hard electronics are becoming less pronounced with recent technological development to integrate electronic components directly into the fiber or garments," Le noted. "Such technological development is crucial for the field of healthcare monitors to really make health monitoring truly seamless and convenient." Art Wall, director of fab operations for NextFlex, reported that healthcare applications are a growing focus for flexible hybrid electronics (FHE). "The conformal capability, miniaturization and the ability to work with biocompatible materials make it an ideal match," Wall pointed out. "This is true of many wearable technologies, but it is also finding its place in things like low cost but powerful diagnostic hardware that can identify unique signatures in infectious species, like SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19. There are even solutions with printed metals that can create surfaces that are continuously self-cleaning to counteract these same infectious species." "We see a clear trend from relatively simple medical devices consisting of a sensor or electrodes towards more complex systems," said Klaus Hecker, OE-A managing director. "This enables much more complex products such as multi-parameter single-use wireless sensors and point-of-care tests, and on longer-term smart implants and smart medications."

COVID-19 Projects

Many companies are working on projects related to COVID-19. In addition to Henkel, Identiv developed its uTrust SafeTemp wearable NFC-enabled patch. Flextrapower developed graphene masks. Enfucell created a wearable temperature tag.
"Identiv’s new uTrust SafeTemp is a wearable NFC-enabled patch that supports the reopening of public spaces, including theme parks and stadiums, and helps operators keep attendees and employees comfortable, confident and safe," Dr. Mueller noted.
In China, the government emphasized the constant temperature monitoring of its citizens. That requires a new approach, and Enfucell OY, a specialist in screenprinted battery technology, developed a wearable temperature tag. Enfucell’s wearable temperature tag can measure and record the body temperature of the target group in real-time. All the data is integrated and uploaded to the cloud platform, which realizes accurate monitoring and analysis. Le noted that Flextrapower developed a cloth mask that has a graphene-infused filter. "The MVP uses graphene’s antiviral properties to block virus-containing microdroplets and within seven weeks, we finished our first prototype, manufactured our first small-batch, and shipped the first mask to our early backers," Le added. "Now we have additional certifications for our graphene filter and successfully launched a filter subscription service, and opened an Amazon store in the US. We’re hoping our next version will use graphene-infused e-textiles to measure the wearer’s safety metrics." McMillan observed that with fewer people wanting to go into a medical facility and many medical facilities being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, telemedicine has become quite popular. This has the advantage of reducing the spread of the virus but most of us are not able to provide the same accurate feedback to the doctor via a video call. "This is where data trumps a patients’ ‘feeling’ and BeBop Sensors has been playing a unique role in providing that data which is precise," McMillan said. "Our sensors embedded in hospital beds, in wheelchairs, within insoles of your shoes, provide accurate, pinpoint data that the physician can use to interpret, diagnose and suggest remedies. This is particularly true in the area of physical rehab." Mildner noted that during COVID-19, MSWtech, together with international partners, has developed a smart patch which allows NFC identification and temperature with every smartphone. "It will be the thinnest available patch with this function and does not require a battery," Mildner added. "The smart patch is a hybrid solution using the thinnest silicon chips in combination with NFC antennas on a skin-friendly silicone substrate."

Advantages of Flexible Electronics for Healthcare

Healthcare is ideal for flexible and/or printed electronics, as the ability to conform to the body makes patches more comfortable for patients. Gillissen said that Henkel offers specific materials for printed electronics that enable these devices. "These materials need to be stretchable and flexible, and can really conform to the body," he added. "We are a supplier for inks and adhesives, and have developed a quite extensive network of companies dedicated to the manufacturing, design and data acquisition." Mildner said that the trend to more body-related data is not only important since COVID-19. "Smartwatches extend the use of sensors to collect data for users’ convenience but also for medical purposes. Printed sensors will be integrated into future clothes and printed electronics allows a smooth hybrid integration with conventional silicon solutions into a thin and flexible device," said Mildner.
"Printed electronics – through the use of wearable devices like NFC patches – can gather and transmit vital healthcare data. Coronavirus has made the use of NFC patches more mainstream, but these devices can potentially improve patient safety in hospitals," said Dr. Mueller.
Le said that there is a visible, upward trend towards increasing digitization across the entire healthcare industry, from electronic healthcare records to wearable devices. "For flexible/printed electronics, we see many ideal applications, such as smart clothing using e-textiles for biometric monitoring," Le noted. "From our smart insole that uses graphene to sense and detect inflammation to graphene-based fabric sensors fabricated with edge-oxidized graphene oxide (EOGO) for detecting muscle activity on a smart t-shirt, these products help put power and control back in the patient’s hands. At-home, self, and remote monitoring is a growing opportunity within healthcare, and it’s our mission to help people better understand their own bodies while promoting preventive health." McMillan noted that BeBop Sensors has seen its sensors used in sports medicine. "For preventative care, our sensors are embedded into a number of wearables – helmets, shoulder pads and others – to both help design better protective gear as well as assist in treatments," McMillan said. "Our sensors are very accurate. They can pinpoint the location of a hit as well as the extent of the hit. This information can be conveyed in real-time to the doctors, giving sports medicine a tremendous boost," McMillan added. "Our sensors are also ideal in remote physical rehabilitation work; we have seen the BeBop data gloves used in medical simulations that allow doctors to practice expensive and complex procedures in a virtual environment," he added. "The flexible nature of our product plus the low footprint allows it to disappear into the wheelchair or hospital bed while providing valuable data that enables more comfort and care." "There is an entire realm of wearable health monitoring devices," said Wall. "They can be small and worn on the body or perhaps even integrated into textiles, but they can also be made to communicate collected data wirelessly, which can eliminate the burden on healthcare workers who spend so much of their time managing and ‘plugging in’ monitors. Instead, they can be freed up to spend more time on patient care." "Flexible and printed electronics are thin, lightweight and enable seamless integration," Hecker noted. "Stretchability enables mounting directly on the skin. These properties make it easy to use for the patient and enhance acceptance. In addition, single-use devices can be produced, which supports the trend towards medical diagnosis at the point of care or even at home."

Commercialization Opportunities

Flexible electronics are proving to be ideal for healthcare applications. In one example, Dr. Jean Bausch GmbH & Co. KG, along with InnovationLab and Heidelberg, launched its OccluSense system in 2019. Using a handheld reader and an iPad app, OccluSense utilizes more than 1,000 printed sensors to accurately record masticatory pressure. In another example, CareWear Corporation developed wearable, wireless, FDA-registered LED light patches for athletes and consumers. CareWear is partnering with several experts, including major universities, medical centers and Nth Degree, to create printed electronics systems that enhance health. NextFlex’s Wall said several projects are approaching commercialization. "I strongly suspect you will see flexible hybrid electronics as part of or making up an entire system very soon," added Wall. "There are promising wearables that could be used to detect early indicators of infection, well ahead of an individual suspecting there is something wrong." "In general, there are dozens of projects that have been commercialized and millions of our sensors are in the field today in musical instruments, in automotive steering wheels and car seats, in medical applications like beds and wheelchairs, in gloves that are used among others, in simulation and training. We supply to a whole variety of customers from military to the consumer," McMillan said "When the pandemic hit, we developed a graphene face mask," Le noted. "Graphene contains antiviral properties and acts as an extra layer of protection against the potential spread of the virus. Our MVP – a cloth mask with a graphene-infused filter – is currently on the market and we’ve received an overwhelmingly positive response. We have near-future plans for creating a smart mask that uses graphene-based fabric sensors to measure a multitude of metrics." "In addition to the well-established printed sensors on glucose test-strips, printed electrodes for ECG and EEG or patches for temperature monitoring of the patient, we see also pressure sensitive soles for early detection of several diseases or pressure sensor arrays for occlusion measurement in dental applications entering the market," said Hecker. "There are a lot of promising activities and trials in smart patches that can monitor vital functions such as breathing, heartbeat or body temperature of patients."
Dr. Mueller reported that brand authenticity and projects in the field to enhance the consumer experience, both NFC related, are the most promising ones right now.
"We are dealing with brand owners and related system integrators predominantly," said Dr. Mueller. "Brand owners are absolutely seeing the potential of the NFC technologies that have been introduced in recent years. Those technologies bind their customer base to their product offerings and the added values and applications, in particular, seem to result in an increased user experience and a deeper adoption of NFC." "Our customers are seeing the potential of this technology and more of them are at our door every week with new ideas and new applications," Wall said. "The community is very excited to see the impact this can make on manufacturing a wide variety of products in healthcare, aerospace, asset monitoring and more." "I see big opportunities for printed electronics in healthcare," Gillissen concluded. "It has features that no other technology has, which in the end allow the most comfort for the patient."