Flexible electronics reach consumers, but manufacturing remains a challenge

By Tom Cheyney
Small Times Contributing Editor

Feb. 15, 2007 — As the first commercial flexible electronics reach consumers, many significant manufacturing and technological obstacles must be overcome for the market to reach its multibillion-dollar potential over the next five to 10 years. This was one of the key themes at the U.S. Display Consortium‘s sixth annual Flexible Display & Microelectronics Conference, held last week.

The conference broadened its focus beyond flexible displays this year, adding photovoltaics, RFIDs, sensors, LEDs, and other organic and printed electronics to the topical mix. The event organizers also increased the number of technical sessions, with parallel tracks for manufacturing and thin-film transistor (TFT)/flex technologies convening during the second day.

The manufacturing track was particularly well attended, with presentations by Hewlett-Packard, Philips, and Applied Materials focusing on the development and differentiation of roll-to-roll and batch-style processing techniques. Papers from Semprius, Kodak, and Fujifilm Dimatix detailed efforts to adapt inkjet and classic printing techniques to flexible electronic applications.

The popularity of the manufacturing sessions also reflected the pioneering efforts by Polymer Vision, Plastic Logic, and other companies to move from the lab or pilot-line stage to volume production. Citing a long-term goal of putting “a rollable display in every mobile device,” Polymer Vision CEO Karl McGoldrick described his company’s efforts to bring its ultrathin-film-transistor polymer display module to market.

Polymer Vision, which spun off from Philips late last year, has announced it will ramp up a Southampton, U.K., manufacturing facility (in partnership with Innos). The company has also entered into an agreement with Telecom Italia to “bring the ‘cellular book’ to market.” Models of what the company touts as the “world’s first commercial rollable display product” were to be unveiled at the 3GSM World conference in Barcelona this week, according to McGoldrick.

Company CTO Edzer Huitema told Small Times that a blend of refurbished and new AMLCD equipment will be deployed, as well as a proprietary lamination/delamination tool, in its Class 100 production facility (scheduled to come on line later this year). He said they are “on spec for creating the product,” with field-effect mobility and driving voltages comparable to conventional TFT devices. Although it is early, yields appear to be sustainable throughout the process flow. Defect sources, which are “comparable to those found in LCD manufacturing,” are “under control.” Ongoing quality control work is focusing on materials purity and various types of insulator layers, he added.

A prototype Plastic Logic e-book at the Flexible Display & Microelectronics Conference. (Photo: Tom Cheyney)

Bolstered by a recent funding round of $100 million, Plastic Logic plans to build and equip a green-field factory site in Dresden, said Simon Jones, VP of product development. The company expects to have “product-quality modules” of its “take anywhere, read anywhere thin, light, robust e-paper displays” by mid-2008, with a production target of more than 1 million 10-in.-equivalent units for 2009.

Plastic Logic’s direct-write, room-temperature process requires no mask alignment and can be scaled to a large substrate size. Jones explained that the company “measures contrast and yield on every panel” and has “captured a huge amount of defect data,” which is “essential for the move from R&D to production.”

During his presentation on the alignment of market forecasts, manufacturing capacity, and investments in organic, plastic, and printed electronics, cintelliq‘s Craig Cruickshank offered a sober assessment of the prospects for manufacturing. He said that, other than in the organic LED (OLED) sector, “the industry will take longer to commercialize than currently anticipated.”

Cruickshank’s data showed that despite the recently announced factory investments, “significant production capacity will need to be built over the next three years to satisfy demand by 2010/2011.” Nearly $800 million will be necessary over the next three years “to build the capacity needed¿to meet the forecasts.” As a result, device and materials companies “need to decide whether to enter production in the next year or so.” He also noted that government investments in the industry in Europe and North America “still exceed the accumulated venture capital funding,” which suggests that the industry remains in R&D mode.


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.