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New market trends in smart automotive surfaces are developing to meet consumer needs in functionality, touch and feel. The Finnish company TactoTek combines printed circuitry and electronic components into fully integrated 3D injection molded ‘smart plastic surfaces’. The concept offers revolutionary opportunities for automotive interior design.
Imagine a car interior where switches, sliders or electronic controls are seamlessly integrated into door panels, instrument panels or steering wheels. That is the promise of TactoTek’s innovative technology, which combines printed circuitry and electronic components into durable 3D injection molded structural electronics (IMSE).
TactoTek was founded in 2011 by Mikko Heikkinen, now Chief Engineer, and Antti Keränen, Chief Technology Officer and the technology mastermind behind structural electronics. Seven years later, the company’s business concept has the potential to transform how electronics are designed and produced. “The technology of in-mold electronics is not new,” says Anis Tebib, Marketing Manager Automotive at Trinseo. “But it is now starting to offer a much wider option.”
During the IMSE production process, the electronics are fabricated on a smart, flexible film, then thermoformed into a 3D shape and combined with plastic through injection. “Touch controls for switches, encapsulated sensors, buttons and sliders, antennas for communication and lighting – the applications for IMSE technology are almost infinite,” says Keränen. “Due to the potentially high economies of scale, the automotive industry is our initial target audience. Especially due to the shortening of product life-cycles greater business opportunities are opening up for us.”
TactoTek’s product solutions are impressively light and stable – in fact they are so light that when visiting customers, Keränen often carries a variety of product samples in a large camera bag. “Weight reduction is a big thing for us,” says Keränen. “IMSE technology often achieves component weight reductions of 50 to 70 percent. Advantages also include reducing parts count and increasing space efficiency. Our process is capable of thinning a classic automotive control panel down to a few millimeters instead of a few inches.”
In many ways, TactoTek aims at revolutionizing inactive interior surfaces, turning them into smart surfaces. "In a car, many inert surfaces exist – passive plastic parts and trims that are not actively used," says Keränen. "Our technology enables electronic interaction via sensor or touch on almost any surface within or even outside the car.” The great advantage of IMSE technology is in incorporating the electronic solution without changing the styling intent of designers. IMSE parts can conform to complex shapes, are thin, easy to integrate and durable.
Our technology enables electronic interaction via sensor or touch on almost any surface within or even outside the car.
When it comes to the choice of molding materials, TactoTek’s customers have many options. "The customers usually tell us what materials they want to use in the process and we help with optimization," says Keränen. Typical molding materials include high pressure and high temperature plastics such as polycarbonate (PC), acrylic (PMMA), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and, for more flexible designs, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU).
So how complicated is the integration of smart surfaces at the assembly line? “Much simpler than the old way,” says Keränen. “A traditional control panel has dozens of parts and subassemblies, including wiring. With structural electronics, we have only one part with multiple functions, saving costly assembly time in the manufacturing process.”
TactoTek’s long-term business model is either to design and manufacture in-house or to license to third parties for mass production. “Even though we offer to produce parts for customers, our primary business proposition is to license patented IMSE production technology,” says Antti Keränen. “TactoTek’s process technology is not reinventing the wheel, but integrating our solution within the well-known mass production technologies of printing, surface mounting electronics, thermoforming and molding. The real transformation lies in ending the 100-year-old electronics in-a-box approach in a way that provides new design freedom and functionality that consumers want.”
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