The key to mass production of plastic electronic devices lies in the advances made in processing technologies such as printing, vacuum deposition and roll-to-roll processing.
The industry is making inroads into the development of processing techniques to manufacture devices such as organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), flexible RFID tags, photovoltaics and so on.
In order to achieve widespread adoption though, it is critical that the challenges involved in roll-to-roll processing or production of plastic electronic devices by the kilometre be addressed. Factors such as yield and resolution become important in the ability to drive down costs, which ultimately convinces end users into adoption.
Printed electronics have advantages in several applications over conventional electronics, mainly due to the processing techniques employed. The prospect of embedding sensors, displays and RFID tags in packaging, for instance, is attractive because the techniques used to fabricate these devices are compliant with packaging processes.
Displays have also come a long way with devices such as e-readers being rolled out with flexible displays that promise a feel akin to conventional books and magazines. Companies such as Plastic Logic have innovative manufacturing schemes where they have intelligently addressed a niche market in the displays segment, since the technology is still not competitive to be a potential threat to liquid crystal displays (LCDs).
If printing techniques become sufficiently reproducible and offer high resolutions at large volumes, their cost is likely to drop significantly, making them comparable to large glass manufacturers. As the cost model in the case of printing on plastic is also lower, the capital investment is less. Additionally, materials used in traditional complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) electronics are completely different from those used in plastic electronics.
Despite the several benefits of plastic electronics, the low bill of materials (BOM) makes it unattractive for manufacturers to step in currently. With increasing advances in material and processing technologies and with benefits becoming more apparent, investments from material developers can be expected to perpetrate down the value chain. Eventually however, roll-to-roll techniques such as flexographic, screen and inkjet printing will present a cost model that can be disruptive.
The market penetration of different processing techniques also differs depending on the applications they serve. Currently, vacuum deposition is the most popular processing technology for the fabrication of OLED displays in Asia. Inkjet printing, however, would require further development to be compatible and competitive with vacuum deposition. Additionally, when considering OLED displays for instance, despite the developments in improving efficiency and lifetime, it must be ensured that these advances are competitive to rapid improvements in LCD technology itself.
Another interesting prospect is the use of LCD fabrication facilities to produce flexible displays. This technique, known as Electronics on Plastic by Laser Release (EPLaR), was developed by the European Union-funded FlexiDis project, and was later licensed to PrimeView International based in Taiwan. Another advance in this area by the Flexible Display Centre at Arizona State University involves the manufacture of flexible display backplanes with amorphous silicon thin-film transistors (TFTs) on planarised Teonex PEN films provided by industrial partner DuPont Teijin Films.
An interesting trend in the flexible electronics industry is that traditional film manufacturers are stepping into the roll-to-roll processing business. Advances in processing technologies must also be complemented by progress on the materials front, owing to the compatibility of materials with manufacturing processes, temperature, pressure variations and so on.
Another factor paramount to the success and widespread adoption is the strength in collaboration between process developers and materials suppliers. Future collaborations between materials and processing equipment manufacturers would lead to the first step of integration. Integration of thin-film technology for multipurpose and multifunctional designs such as smart objects involves different competencies requiring such collaborations. As both these categories of material developers are contributing to improvements in conducting and semiconductor materials, the number of material solution providers is increasing and would add to the competitiveness of the field in the future.
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