Flexible electronics reach consumers, challenges remain

PHOENIX, AZ - 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 ten years.

PHOENIX, AZ - 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 ten years. This was one of the key themes at the U.S. Display Consortium’s (USDC; San Jose, CA) sixth annual Flexible Display & Microelectronics Conference, held February 5-8 in Phoenix, AZ.

The conference broadened its focus beyond flexible displays this year, adding photovoltaics, radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs), sensors, light-emitting diodes (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.”

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-inch-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.

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.

For the full review article of the USDC Flexible Display & Microelectronics Conference, go to www.smalltimes.com/articles/284770.

-Tom Cheyney
Small Times Contributing Editor

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