Structural electronics (SE) is one of the most important technological developments of this century. It forms a key part of the dream -- formulated decades ago -- of computing disappearing into the fabric of society. It will become a component of the evolving Internet of Everything phenomenon.
It also addresses a dream of Thomas Edison in 1880 -- that electricity should be made where it is needed. SE is often biomimetic -- it usefully imitates nature in ways not previously feasible. And, it's a rapidly growing multi-billion dollar business.
Structural electronics involves electronic and/or electrical components and circuits that act as load-bearing, protective structures, replacing dumb structures such as vehicle bodies.
According to the latest market study by IDTechEx, in the near future aircraft -- and later automobiles -- will have a nervous system like a human being, instantly alerting to touch and damage.
Aircraft will have no passenger windows, instead displaying a moving color picture of what you would see from a window in the position where the window used to be, thanks to a smart inside to the fuselage - an imaginary window.
Bridges immediately warn of decay, load or earthquakes -- thanks to self-powered sensors sealed within them. Dance floors, stairs and the walkways in subways sometimes generate enough electricity to power signage and lighting because electronics sealed in the floor creates electricity from movement.
All this is structural electronics, a large new market that was recently assessed by IDTechEx. Their study resulted in a forecast for structural electronics and for its key enabling technologies employed or envisaged -- such as printed electronics. Electric vehicles particularly need structural electronics so their numbers were forecast for the next ten years, in 37 categories.
The technologies used now and in the future are assessed, from in-mold electronics to electronic 3D printing of load-bearing structures, structural metamaterials and energy harvesting such as structural photovoltaics. They are related to each other in the report with indication of maturity and potential.
A spectacular future awaits, with even the body of a washing machine acting as the controls, there being no separate components and connections. Aircraft are being developed that stay aloft on nothing more than sunshine thanks to structural solar cells in the whole wing and elsewhere.
Large boats circumnavigate the world on sunshine thanks to solar decks, solar roads are being developed and car bodies that store electricity thanks to structural super-capacitors are being trialed. Smart skin on vehicles, buildings and other structures is assessed in this comprehensive report.
Smart skin can increasingly perform many functions, including ubiquitous sensing, electricity generation, electricity storage and diversion of lightning strikes around aircraft made of insulating fiber composites. It will be possible to make the whole of a road vehicle glow in the dark, reducing accidents.
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.