Structural electronics - the next big thing in smart cars?

September 18, 2014 // By Christoph Hammerschmidt
Electronic circuits embedded in vehicles, aircraft and more have the potential to be a $60 billion market by 2025, says technology market research company IDTechEx. And when they say embedded, they mean really embedded: In the structure of a vehicle's body or an airplane's wing.

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 extend, an early predecessor of this approach is already in place in today's vehicles: A highly sensitive microphone in the very front and back part of the car records the structure-borne sound in the case of an accident and sends the signal to the airbag controller.

The vision of the IDTEchEx experts reaches far beyond such simple applications. And the application of structural electronics 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 sealed in the floor could generate enough electricity to power signage and lighting. Even white goods can benefit from integrating structural electronics: The body of a washing machine could act 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