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Fit to print: US Display Consortium embraces electronics (r)evolution, becomes FlexTech Alliance

09 July 2008 | By Tom Cheyney | Chip Shots

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The news that the US Display Consortium (USDC) has fully embraced the emerging flexible and printed electronics technologies and changed its name to the FlexTech Alliance came as no surprise. As head honcho Mike Ciesinski said in a Webcast earlier today, "the transition had been under way for a long's not much of a shift for us." 


Even before the organization rebranded itself, it had seen the vast majority of its activities migrating to what it has been calling FPOE, for flexible, printed, and organic electronics, even starting an initiative with that initialism in late 2006. Two of its most important critical-path partner-members are the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University and the Center for Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing (CAMM) in Binghamton, NY, which features a roll-to-roll pilot line. Its Flexible Displays conference had morphed to Flexible Electronics and Displays, and attendance at the event has been growing rapidly over the past few years. Even the nickname of the show is "Flex."

Perhaps the most telling facet of the group's transformation has been that the awards it has given out over the past few years have gone almost exclusively to companies and universities working on materials (primarily), processes, and R2R and other equipment in the FPO space. Recently completed programs with Plextronics and Dow Corning focused on hole injection layers or materials targeted for high-performance, low-cost, printed organic LEDs, while a large project with GE and others investigated novel ultra-high-barrier thin-film encapsulation PECVD processes for flexible OLEDs.

A new cost-shared award from USDC, er, FlexTech helps fund the efforts of Oregon State University and Applied Materials in researching intriguing high-mobility, low-cost (a recurring theme) metal-oxide films for flexible displays and backplanes. Another newish program puts money in the R&D pockets of Sigma Technologies, which is looking into a new family of conductive, transparent polymer- and nanoflake-based thin (2-3 nm) film coatings that could have display and solar collector applications.

As if on cue, another USDC/FlexTech awardee, Optomec, announced within hours of the organizational name-change news that it has signed a strategic development program with Applied Nanotech to adapt ANI's copper nanoink with its own multinozzle, high-resolution aerosol jet-spray technology for a raft of potential apps.

Ciesinski said the alliance will promote the creation of profitable business models and collaboration throughout the FPO value chain, with the development of a proper supply chain infrastructure as the key focus activity. Although the org has an admittedly North American bent, it will be open to "worldwide partnerships" and will be supportive (of course) of the global growth of the new markets, similar to how USDC has operated. He stressed the importance of a "strong advocacy role" for FlexTech, especially given how European and certain Asian governments have significantly outspent the US in the organic and "plastic" electronics spheres.

Alliance CTO Mark Hartney listed some of the key technical challenges, including the development of higher-mobility, longer-lifetime materials (both organic and inorganic), the need for increased resolution in the printing technologies and better testing capabilities for interlayer alignment and the like, and dealing with the not-insignificant problems of integrating printed features and functional silicon-based chips in hybrid devices.

He also pointed to printed electronics' green side. Since it is, by function, an additive tech, you can "print where you need to," making much more efficient use of materials. Also, the low-temperature processes used to fabricate a flexible display don't have much "thermal cycling" and don't gobble as much juice as conventional approaches. Hartney cited a study by printed electronics start-up Kovio that found 85% less energy used in their silicon-ink-based process compared to the norm.

One inadvertently humorous moment came toward the end of the Webcast, when Ciesinski was waxing enthusiastically about the huge potential upside of FPO electronics in the medical/health market, citing biosensors with simple displays as an example. "At the end of the day, you have to be able to see what you're looking at," he said in true deadpan Yogi Berra style, "particularly in a human environment where you're doing medical care."

The FlexTech Alliance's elegant vision of ubiquitous "human-scale electronics," built around lightweight, flexible, inexpensive printed electronics components, is certainly compelling and moving closer to reality--a multibillion-dollar multiple market opportunity that has many corporations hard at work in the labs and even on some factory floors, rubbing their hands in not-so-altruistic anticipation of future profit centers.


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