Cover story: Pushing the potential of plastic electronics

7 mins read

The UK's plastic electronics sector needs to link its technology with market needs in order to meet expectations. By Graham Pitcher.

The UK, with few exceptions, has not been a leader in the global electronics industry. Glimmers of hope existed in the early days, when Ferranti dipped its toes in the programmable logic market and Inmos threatened briefly to become a leader in the memory and microcontroller markets. Since then, companies such as ARM, CSR and Icera have established dominant positions in their chosen markets, but the UK has largely been interested more in the applications of electronics technology, rather than its invention. But there is a technology – still in its early days – where, in the eyes of many observers, the UK holds a global leadership position and that is plastic electronics. The potential is such that the Labour Government was moved to develop a strategy aimed at building and protecting the sector. Global demand for plastic electronics is estimated to be worth $120billion by 2020 and the strategy was intended to capture a sizeable chunk of that for UK companies. The strategy document – Plastic Electronics: a UK strategy for success – noted the opportunities from the sector to be 'real and realisable' and for the sector to contain 'a vibrant mix of SMEs, larger indigenous companies and global systems businesses'. Since the strategy was launched in December 2009, work has been underway to consolidate and grow the UK's plastic electronics skills and technology base. Dr Ric Allott is director for plastic electronics with the Electronics, Sensors and Photonics Knowledge Transfer Network (ESPKTN) and, as such, has been involved in the sector for some time. "The plastic electronics strategy has five elements," he noted. "Creating coherent leadership; stimulating applications and business opportunities; growing and exploiting the national science and technology resources; building a business based environment; and skills and training." The coherent leadership is being provided in the form of the Plastic Electronics Leadership Group (PELG). "It's an overarching group with three workstreams," Dr Allott noted. "Keith Rollins, from DuPont Teijin Films, is chair, with HP Labs' Adrian Geisow heading the business workstream, Tom Taylor from PETEC handling science and technology and Professor Donal Bradley from Imperial College has the skills brief." Imperial College's Centre for Plastic Electronics is developing a plastic semiconductor that allows an electrical charge to pass through it at high speed. The discovery is thought to have application in flat screens, where it could reduce costs dramatically. Dr Allott said the PELG is not intended to be around for a long time. "It's met three or four times over the last year, but the idea is that it shouldn't exist forever. It's probably got a three year life and, once the job is done, will probably dissolve." Stimulating the development of plastic electronics in the UK is an interesting challenge. "There are different ways in which this can be done," Dr Allott observed. "For example, the Northern Way demonstrator programme has been very successful over the last year." The project, which ends in March, has looked at building the plastic electronics supply chain. "For example, the project has used commercial chemical companies to make organic semiconductor materials in large quantities." He said that 1kg batches of the chemicals were now being produced, compared to 'a few grams' before. An £8million project funded by the Technology Strategy Board is also helping to build the supply chain and to produce demonstrators. "This has actively involved the design community," said Dr Allott. Asked whether this is equivalent to missionary work, Dr Allott agreed. "Absolutely. What the ESPKTN has done is to build a community, but one with a technical focus. All companies are interested in making their technology better, but we now need to look at the benefits and whether people will buy it. The penny hasn't dropped with every company." Dr Allott highlighted Novalia as a company using a design led approach. "It's talking to people, asking what they want and has gone from strength to strength." Another contribution to strengthening the sector was a trade mission to Japan in November 2010. "It turned up some interesting potential collaborations," Dr Allott recalled. He believes the plastic electronics community hasn't sat still over the last 12 months. "From the academic perspective, we've seen new work on, for example, organic transistors by a number of universities. This is groundbreaking stuff that makes people sit up and go 'wow'." University of Manchester spin out Nano ePrint has developed printed transistor technology that could enable low cost, high performance printed electronics. The company has recently been acquired by Pragmatic Printing. Centres of Excellence have also made a difference. The five centres have been brought together, with the ESPKTN acting as a hub, to form PECOE, the Printed Electronics Centres of Excellence. The group is industry facing, providing support for product and process innovation through collaborative R&D projects. It wants to act as a gateway to business and academic networks and as a common voice to lobby key UK stakeholders. Dr Allott pointed out that PECOE has presented in Korea and Japan. "We've been able to show our five centres working as one and that has been seen as impressive." Another aspect of the 'missionary work' is holding technology focused events. "We'll be picking market segments – healthcare or transport, for example – highlighting to companies in those sectors the benefits of plastic electronics and working with them to create demonstrators. What it needs is for companies in key sectors to be shown the benefits. Instead of saying 'my transistors have high mobility', companies need to say 'my technology is lightweight and conformable' or 'more energy efficient'. We need to highlight the benefits," Dr Allott claimed. Getting product into the market is equally important. Dr Allott said there is technology aimed at the medicare market which is 'ready to go'. "But if you leave it to technology developers, they will often continue to improve their technology. The problem is that, the more you improve your technology, the further away you are from the market." For the longer term, skills will be all important. "There's already good activity in the doctoral centre at Imperial College," Dr Allott said, "and we're pushing to get more universities to feature some elements of plastic electronics." The ESPKTN is working with SEMTA, the sectoral skills council, on a skills audit. "We'll be visiting companies and finding out their requirements. It's work in progress, but it's started," he said. But the big push this year will be for the plastic electronics industry to engage with the industrial design community. "The big thing will be to engage with industrial designers and, through them, talk with large companies. We have to use industrial designers as the link between technology and the market," Dr Allott concluded. Boxing clever Dr Kate Stone, pictured below, managing director of printed electronics specialist Novalia, has been involved with the sector for some years. "I was doing at PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory," she recalled, "when I met Richard Friend, founder of Cambridge Display Technology. I was interested in joining a start up and he was about to launch Plastic Logic. I was the third engineer to join the company and stayed there for two years developing logic and some of the early printing equipment." But Dr Stone was more interested in making transistors for simple circuits and became, in her words, 'fascinated by printing and how it could be used to make things'. "My PhD was about moving electrons one by one using conventional microelectronics. But I started to see what could be done with printing and I began to think about making devices in different ways." In fact, Dr Stone is working with 10µm transistors. "Intel was working with transistors of this size in 1969," she noted, "but we're finding out what can be done with them today." She has developed a printing process that allows electronic circuits to be laid down. "I saw how crisp packets were manufactured, using evaporation in a high volume process on 3m wide substrates," she noted, "and wondered whether we could print transistors in that way." Dr Kate Stone: "Everything we do involves thinking about how a product can be manufactured, who will use it and what value can be added. We can add more value by creating an interactive product which helps someone to comply or which understands." Having got a grant to help develop the technology, she started visiting companies. "In general, we were asked to come back in three months with something working. But we were working with a five to 10 years mindset, so we couldn't go back and give them what they wanted." Looking to exploit the potential of conductive inks, Dr Stone realised that things can be made to happen without printing transistors. "We found we could take conductive ink and combine this with conventional silicon electronics. So we now make hybrids using conductive ink and conventional electronics." However, Dr Stone isn't going it alone. "We're working with some of the main names in printed electronics," she said, "including PETEC. It's all about how to make exciting products in a way that is compatible with how they are made at the moments." She believes product design is all important; the first person hired by Novalia was a graphics designer. "Everything we do involves thinking about how a product can be manufactured, who will use it and what value can be added. We can add more value by creating an interactive product which helps someone to comply or which understands. If you can do that, it gets you closer to the 'killer app'." Novalia now has around 20 patent applications pending. Some of these are about how to print transistors, but the majority cover ways of making print interactive. "Nobody else is doing what we do," she claimed. "We're showing technology and art combined." Dr Stone agrees that the UK is ahead of the world when it comes to plastic or printed electronics. "We're good at inventing things and developing processes, but one of the problems with the UK is that things always happen on a five year horizon. But there are things that can be done now and I am seeing a shift towards an appreciation of that." PETEC has played an important role is this, creating plastic electronics demonstrators and Novalia is involved in a number of these. One of these, a consortium of Yorkshire printers and designers, is focusing on the development of interactive posters incorporating Novalia's printed electronic technology. While microelectronics is targeted at getting circuitry into the smallest possible area of silicon, the same constraints don't exist when you're working with an A1 poster. "You can spread the transistors over a large area on something that's thin and flexible. Displays are an attractive market because displays are large and can be flexible," she noted. Novalia is also discussing interactive packaging with a US packaging company. Two demonstrators have already been created. In one, a cookie carton in the shape of a fire engine, interactive touchpoints allow different sounds to be generated. "It blends a carton, a bit of electronics and a disposable battery," said Dr Stone. "It's not a bad thing for the environment as it extends the life of a carton that would otherwise be thrown away." The second demonstrator is a tissue box with a keyboard. An indication of the potential comes from the packaging company's output – 250billion boxes a year. "But we have to show that the product can be made with minimal hand assembly. We can do it with litho printing, the first time it has been done." Bringing electronics and printing together raises cultural and language problems. "The units are different," she pointed out. "When you ask how thick a piece of card is, the answer is that it depends on the weather. And there are different file formats – electronics people use Gerber files, printers use TIFFs. There is a problem crossing these barriers, but some of the greatest technical challenges can be solved with a modest knowledge of electronics and some creativity."