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Structural electronics give cars smart skins

19 Sep 2014  | Christoph Hammerschmidt

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In-mould electronics for avionics and automotive applications show considerable promise in becoming a $60 billion market by 2025, according to market research company IDTechEx.

Embedded electronics is not entirely new. It can be regarded as the consequent continuation of the principles of mechatronics, the amalgamation of electronic and mechanic components and functions. It can also be regarded as a further development of packaging technologies. In any case, 3D printing will boost the technological options and possibilities of structural electronics. A research report from IDTechEx predicts that embedded electronics will first become state-of-the art in the aviation industry where large display panels inside the fuselage will displace the windows as we know it, depicting the outside world much as do today's windows, but enhanced by passenger information and other elements of enhanced reality.

In cars, structural electronics certainly won't make the windows disappear but elements of structural electronics could be integrated within the vehicle's body and undercarriage, resembling the human nervous system and enabling the vehicles to instantly alerting to touch and damage. To some extent, an early predecessor of this approach is already in place in today's vehicles—a highly sensitive microphone placed at the front and back of the car body records structure-borne sounds in case of an accident, and sends the signal to the airbag controller.

The vision of the IDTEchEx experts reaches far beyond such simple applications, given that the application is not restricted to automotive and aviation technology. Bridges will be able to immediately warn of decay or load—thanks to self-powered sensors sealed with them. Dance floors, stairs and walkways in subways could be equipped with electronic sensors and energy harvesting devices for generating enough electricity to power signage and lighting. Even white goods can benefit from integrating structural electronics, where the body of a washing machine could function as the controls; this technology makes the separation of components disappear.

Electric vehicles particularly need structural electronics, the IDTechEx researchers believe. Smart skin on vehicles, buildings and other structures can increasingly perform many functions, including ubiquitous sensing, generating and storing electric energy. Another example of smart skins are insulating fibre composites that can protect an aircraft from diverse lighting strikes.

Key technologies enabling structural electronics that are covered in the IDTechEx report range from in-mould electronics to 3D printing of load-bearing structures, structural metamaterials and energy harvesting.

On a smaller scale, it has been shown that the protective insulation on cabling can be replaced with structural electronics and dumb printed circuit boards are being made load-bearing and smart. A common factor is saving space, weight and cost while increasing reliability.

-Christoph Hammerschmidt
  EE Times Europe

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