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Flexible electronics, now being printed, is the future of new applications in sensors, displays, power, and lighting according to experts gathered at the FlexTech Alliance 2012 Flexible Electronics & Displays Conference & Exhibition.
Flexible, printed electronics will usher in the “Organic Age” predicted Dr. Jennifer Ricklin, Chief Technologist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and the opening speaker of the 2012 FlexTech Alliance Flexible Electronics & Displays Conference & Exhibition. Dr. Ricklin stated, “Flex electronics is a revolution, following in line with previous electronics industry innovations. It is a disruptive technology that will create, change and disturb markets.” Ricklin further explained that disruptive technology takes decades to mature and we are now entering the Organic Age--the coming together of nanotechnology, biology and information technologies to enable multiple applications in commercial and defense markets.
Organic light emitting diodes (OLEDS) are a common demonstration of organic electronics, with displays and lighting the most visual applications. Steven Abramson, President and CEO of UDC, noted that OLED displays will challenge the liquid crystal display supremacy (LCD) because they have fewer parts, a lower bill of materials, and a superior image. OLEDs, which just passed $1B in sales, are increasingly found in mobile formats, while large consumer electronics manufacturers are prototyping 50”+ OLED TVs.
Flexible organic photovoltaics (PV) demonstrate how energy can be harvested from earth abundant materials. Jim Buntaine of Konarka presented working examples of off-grid applications of flexible PV such as bus stations in San Francisco and green houses in the Middle East. The large off-grid population opens new markets for this technology.
In many respects, flexible, printed electronics products will be enabled by advancements in materials technology. A primary example is the e-reader, which has become a huge market based on electronic ink developed and commercialized by E Ink. The e-reader occupies most of the top sales slots on Amazon.com. Future advances will include a color e-reader, recently launched in China, large area signage, and stretchable substrates.
The printing industry is increasingly engaged with the electronics industry and this merger of capabilities was explained by John McCooey of DuPont MCM and Kevin Manes of Mark Andy. Both noted that there are multiple printing mechanisms that will print electronic circuitry, with gravure and flexography as the most likely contenders. Manes indicated that the printing industry has significant experience in this area for graphics printing which needs to be adapted to functional printing. He commented that “it is possible to fool the eye, but you cannot fool electrons.”
Can glass be made flexible? That question was answered affirmatively by Corning Inc., which demonstrated very thin glass moving over rollers and through processing tools. Flexible glass offers significant advancements in optical transmission, dimensional stability, and prevention of water vapor and oxygen permeation; it’s a true “game-changer.” Corning shared a glimpse into the future with a showing of their video, A Day in Glass 2, illustrating how flexible glass can improve quality of life. David Barnes of Biz Witz offered product packaging and wearables as targets of flexible electronics opportunities. Furthermore, Barnes advised that sharing the risk in developing and deploying new technology, as well as collaboration, can propel an emerging industry to success.
“Collaboration was a strong theme being echoed throughout the opening day presentations,” said Michael Ciesinski, CEO of FlexTech Alliance. “FlexTech Alliance has long been facilitating this collaboration by developing the flexible supply chain with an R&D funding program and providing forums to exchange ideas. The Flex Conference, now in its eleventh year, has shown steady growth in the number of exhibitors and attendees as well as the diversity of products and technology being presented. This year’s conference has experienced record breaking attendance, up 15% over 2011, and a 30% increase in exhibiting companies.”