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The market for flexible displays is maturing, says Tim Burne

From curved TVs to pop-up presentation screens a new wave of products are making their way to market driven, in no small part, by advances in flexible display technology. Devices which can be folded or rolled are expected to appear shortly creating a market that could be worth $200bn within five years.

A key player is Plastic Logic Germany, a manufacturer of plastic displays and a very different beast to the UK company set up in November 2000 when it was originally spun out of Cambridge University to develop a process for printing transistors.

While Plastic Logic’s original research focused on using polymer dispersed liquid crystals (PDLC) on glass, as well as on transistor stability and new front planes, today Plastic Logic Germany has created an industrialised process that enables it to mass produce a glass-free backplane.

The company produces transistor arrays on plastic, instead of using traditional silicon transistors, and its active-matrix backplane consists of organic thin film transistors (OTFTs) on PET. This backplane when coupled with a flexible display medium, such as flexible OLED or EPD, means that it can deliver a fully flexible display.

The roots of Plastic Logic Germany were laid in May 2007 when it was decided to build a display factory in Dresden.

“Today our factory can produce plastic displays that are extremely robust and flexible. The facility comprises of a 3800m² clean room area, for backplane processing and test and assembly processes as well as a pilot production line for large area, smart, flexible electronic applications on plastic substrates,” says the company’s CEO Tim Burne. He continues, “We are the only company that has moved beyond the prototype stage in sheet-to-sheet manufacturing and begun the industrialisation of flexible electronics in Europe.

“Product designers can now access a production ready, flexible display suitable for markets from smart cards and wearables to mobile devices.”

Plastic Logic Germany was formed when the original company was split into two back in 2015. The other company, FlexEnable focuses on research and is based in Cambridge.

“The separation was part of a strategic transition,” says Burne. “While FlexEnable is focused on innovation, this facility develops, manufactures and sells a range of flexible, electrophoretic displays. Our Lectum displays are much more rugged than standard glass-based EPDs, as well as being lighter and thinner.”

Burne took on the position of CEO of Plastic Logic Germany in February 2015, having joined the business in 2013.

“I trained as an engineer and when I joined Plastic Logic as chief strategy officer I’d had considerable experience in managing strategic change whether through acquisition, merger or management buy-outs.

“I’m an engineer at heart so I like building things – that also includes businesses. The restructuring and separation of the original Plastic Logic business was certainly a challenge,” he suggests.

“Focus is key – it’s the biggest issue for any business and, perhaps, a lack of focus was what had held the old business back. It made commercial sense to separate the two parts.

“Before the restructuring it would be fair to say that we’d gone after too many markets. Today we’re focused on fewer markets but those include wearables and payment cards. For example, we’ve customers looking to integrate a display into their credit cards.”

As part of the company’s restructuring, Burne took a long, hard look at its cost base.

“We talked at length with our partners as we looked to create a new business and strategy to take this technology to the next level.

“Perhaps when we started our technology was ahead of its time; it is only now we are delivering the robust, flexible and light weight products that our customers are calling for,” Burne says. “The wearables market, for example, has begun to value what our flexible displays can offer them.”

The company can currently supply 1.1 to 4in screens for smaller displays but can also supply displays up to 10.7in in diameter.

“I think we are well positioned to deliver larger screen sizes.”

Crucially, Burne has looked to deliver a sustainable and profitable business.

“Sales are growing and our applications book is solid and I believe after a lot of hard work we are well placed to take the business forward in the coming years.

“What’s interesting is that our customers are not coming up with product ideas as stretching as they were 5 to 6 years ago. Instead they are more interested in achievable ideas using products that are already in our portfolio.”

Running a facility that was designed and built ten years ago is demanding, he concedes.

“While manufacturing technology has moved on, our focus has been on honing and investing in existing capabilities to produce and supply plastic electronic displays.

“We’ve added colour to the process and worked hard to reduce our cost base while maintaining high quality standards.”

But retaining product quality while reducing production costs hasn’t been easy.

“The market is changing and we had to spend a lot of time selecting materials for their availability and cost; we had issues to overcome when it came to getting hold of materials that would enable us to remain price competitive.

“It’s always going to be a trade-off, balancing product quality with cutting costs. We worked through various scenarios using different materials to see what impact they would have on product quality. It took a long time to strike the right balance but we achieved it.”

Further investment is planned at the plant with the aim of delivering much larger screen sizes.

“Engineers who approach us are more interested in form factor and whether we can supply the quantities they want at a price they are happy to pay, which suggests, at least to me, that we’ve entered a more mature market than was the case just a few years ago.”

Author
Neil Tyler

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