By US Display Consortium
For over fifty years large, materials-oriented products built with metals or fabric were considered “low-tech” and small products, such as microelectronics and microbiology, as “high tech.” The trend of microchip manufacturing, for example, is towards materials of higher perfection, using ever more expensive patterning and manufacturing tools to make smaller things. Consequently, investments in academic, corporate and government science and manufacturing paradigms emerged around this direction.
In contrast, flexible, large-area electronics is emerging as a new science and it requires a new direction in academic and corporate research to realize its full potential. That potential is low cost, human scale, ubiquitous electronics that will transform the interaction of people with electronic devices. For in the long-run, products that have the widest impact on people’s lives are products that are functional and inexpensive.
Even high-end users and dual-use users benefit from this trend because large consumer markets drive large investments to enable technology advancements. Flexible electronics, therefore, is a transformational change that will be accomplished through the merging of new, large-area electronic platforms with traditional materials and industries, such as textiles, building materials and plastics. Enabling this industry will require new materials, processes, technology and innovative, large area system design.
The consequences are revolutionary to the whole infrastructure of materials, manufacturing and design, and these topics are so encompassing that nanotechnology, biotechnology, imaging technology and integrated circuits all will be integrated onto a new platform. The diversity of applications and technologies will be immense.
In microelectronics, costs per function have come down over 30 years by more than a million times, largely by making each unit smaller. Human scale products, however, (e.g., clothes, bandages, solar cells) are necessarily much larger and, going forward, will contain three critical elements.
First, the materials must be cheap – not crystals as used in semiconductor manufacturing. Therefore, a major opportunity exists to develop non-crystalline, primarily organic-based materials with high performance, especially for electronic/optoelectronic devices.
Second, patterning the materials, which is the major cost of integrated circuit manufacturing, must be made more inexpensive. For example, integrated circuits have a cost of ~$100,000/m2. Flat panel manufacturing is currently under $10,000/m2, but even this is too expensive for applications like intelligent clothes. A full-color advertising catalog, which has patterned ink layers on a scale almost smaller than we can see, costs only pennies per m2.
Thus, printing technology as a means of patterning shows great promise. Finally, products for people must flex, bend, conform and be rugged. These
three factors frame a wide range of the most basic fundamental science and engineering challenges that will soon excite our national research community.
For these reasons, it’s imperative that U.S. federal policy makers understand the potential impact of flexible electronics and take steps to ensure that U.S.-based firms are competitive. Fortunately, the history of the U.S is replete with significant steps that the federal and state governments have taken to encourage economic expansion, enhance national and homeland security, and spur innovation.
The Homestead Act, enabling land grant colleges, enacting the GI Bill, and supporting the creation of SEMATECH are just a few examples 3 from different eras. Public-private partnerships (or consortia) are a more recent development and provide an ideal platform to combine academic, government and industrial resources.