Quad Industries is a family business specialising in the development and manufacture of flexible printed electronics. Arne Casteleyn, managing director, explains the market opportunities for this technology in the automotive industry. He also shares with us his vision and experience of working with these giants of the automotive industry.

Hi Arne, thank you for being my next subject in our “Coffee with…” series of interviews.  Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit more about your company?
Sure! My name is Arne Casteleyn. I am a managing director at Quad Industries, focusing on sales and strategy. We are a family company. My brother is also a managing director, focusing on operations and general management. Quad Industries is active in the development and manufacturing of printed flexible electronics. The company has around 60 employees over 2 locations: the headquarters in Belgium (HQ, R&D and Roll-to-roll production), and our plant in Slovakia which is more focused on sheet-to-sheet production.

Can you tell me more about where printed flexible electronics are used in the automotive industry?
The first area is HMI touch controls for HVAC systems, windows, doors, etc. The second area is that of printed PTC heating elements. They are fitted into seats, armrests, steering wheels, as well as external parts such as tanks, hoses, and even windscreen wipers. The third area is that of printed sensors: seat sensors, smart steering wheel, ‘hands-off” detection, as well as integrated large area temperature or moisture sensors in batteries. The final area is that of printed antennas which are integrated under or inside external parts. As you can see, printed flexible electronics can be found virtually everywhere inside a car.

Because they are so widely used, I can imagine that there are also some misconceptions related to printed flexible electronics. Can you elaborate on this?
Indeed. One of the misconceptions is that printed electronics are designed to replace flex-PCBs. However, there should be more focus on functionalities that benefit from the real core values of printed electronics, such as large area printing of a functionality. 

Is there still much innovation in the field?
I’m sure there is. Smart surfaces are trending: creating intelligent intuitive surfaces is something of a priority.  We were recently awarded an IMEC-ICON project together with Recticel Automotive to work on smart automotive skins for automotive dashboards, for example. 

In my previous interviews, I was told that the automotive industry is conservative and has long decision-taking times.  Do you consider the automotive industry to be a leading industry or more of a follower?
In terms of touch control technology, I wouldn’t say that the automotive industry is really in a leading position. However, in general, I feel that the automotive industry is very much driven by innovation. One of our partners, Novares, has a specific innovation lab focused on bringing innovations to the market. They are also reaching out to start-ups so that sounds very much like a leader to me.

You mentioned Recticel and Novares. I believe that you are not a typical supplier, placing a greater focus on co-creation, looking for new designs and functionalities. Is that the way to go for your company?
It is. It is a strategic decision to focus on co-creation and co-development. Printed electronics are still an emerging technology. We want to work with customers to explore new materials and bring innovation from the idea stage to a concept, then to a prototype and subsequently scale it up to mass production. We are working on in-mold electronics with Novares. We are pooling our expertise in printed electronics with Novares’ expertise in the field of plastics. 

Let’s talk User Experience. Tesla started the trend of fewer buttons and large screens inside the car, and other OEMs are following suit. However, a German court recently ruled that using a screen while driving a car is illegal. Can printed flexible electronics help to bring about a new but safer user experience?
I believe so. I am not a big fan of using touch screens in a car. Navigating through menus distracts the driver. Smart surfaces do not necessarily have to have a display, a touchscreen, or a navigation menu. You can keep the traditional button, you can work with tactile surfaces, create tactile differences to easily identify your buttons or touch areas, and you can combine them with haptic feedback. In this way, you elevate your aesthetics by creating a new type of touch control but you retain the necessary feedback. In addition, there is considerable innovation in the field of haptics overall. Capacitive touch systems combined with haptics can be a good substitute for touch screens. We will also be able to create smart surfaces combining capacitive sensors with pressure sensors. I expect that in the end, voice, screens and buttons will all be combined.

What challenges typically need to be overcome when applying printed electronics?
Printing functionalities directly onto a substrate is already a widely-used technique. When you move towards combining your printed functionalities with traditional electronics, the main challenge today is to understand the limits of what we would call “hybrid electronics”. We believe that understanding these limits and comparing them to the traditional automotive standards is the main challenge in moving from integrating typical printed functionality to integrating hybrid functionality.

Arne, this was all very interesting to me. It’s impressive to see that you are able to collaborate with the giants of the automotive industry and that you are also at the forefront of innovation. Thanks a lot for your time!
Thanks a lot Ward, I very much enjoyed it!

Interview taken by Ward Vleegen for Agoria.