Flexible electronics describes advances in circuits that can bend and stretch, enabling significant versatility in applications and the prospect of low-cost manufacturing processes. Given this advantage over conventional electronics built on rigid substrates, flexible electronics technologies—including flexible displays, sensors, batteries, and solar panels—have the potential to become highly pervasive.1 Some industry observers believe that, at current rates, the global market for a range of flexible electronics products can grow from a few billion dollars a year now to $60 billion a year by the end of this decade.2
THE FLEXIBLE ELECTRONICS OPPORTUNITY
Although the United States has some very good basic research programs in flexible electronics, a key issue is whether the nation is poised to capitalize on this opportunity to develop a robust manufacturing industry in this emerging technology. A recent report commissioned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) of European programs to promote flexible electronics research and manufacturing took a sober view of U.S. prospects:
“The relatively low prevalence of actual manufacturing and advanced systems research and development in the United States has led to an incomplete hybrid flexible electronics R&D scenario for this country: it is strong in basic research
1Recognizing its growing potential, a 2003 National Research Council report predicted that “in the future, structural materials will incorporate sensing reporting and even healing functions into the body of the material.” See National Research Council, Materials Science and Technology: Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2003.
2See remarks by Andrew Hannah in the Proceedings chapter of this volume. Estimate of the projected global market vary. Other speakers at the workshop presented different if roughly similar estimates.
and in innovation but weak in advanced development for manufacturing, mirroring trends in some other sectors as well. Although the United States may be doing what it does best, manufacturing is moving to regions of the world that provide greater investment and commitment to product development. It then becomes questionable as to whether this approach is a healthy one and can be sustained in the long term.”3
A Lost Opportunity or a New One?
Is flexible electronics a lost opportunity to develop a U.S.-based industry in a major emerging technology, or can the United States take steps to ensure that U.S.-based manufacturers can actively compete in this rapidly developing market? To describe the nature and potential applications of flexible electronics technologies and to document national programs to support the research, development, and commercialization of this emerging technology by leading U.S. competitors, the National Academies convened a conference on “Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing, and Growth in the United States” as a part of its study of “Best Practice in National Innovation Programs for Flexible Electronics.”
During the conference, views were sought on steps the United States can take to build manufacturing capabilities and enhance the competitiveness of American firms in this emerging technology.4 The conference drew together leading figures from the governments, universities, and industry in the United States as well as representatives from Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan. This overview highlights key issues raised during this conference. The proceedings provide a detailed summary of the presentations by the conference participants.
WHAT IS FLEXIBLE ELECTRONICS?
Flexible electronics refers to both products and manufacturing techniques, according to Ross Bringans of the Palo Alto Research Center. In the first category, conference participants cited a number of applications that can take advantage of flexibility.
3Ananth Dodabalapur et al., “European Research and Development in Hybrid Flexible Electronics,” World Technology Evaluation Center, July 2010. This report was sponsored by NSF and ONR.
4For a comparative review of national programs to foster innovation and manufacturing, and the challenges and opportunities facing the United States in the face of growing global competition, see National Research Council, Rising to the Challenge: U.S. Innovation Policy for the Global Economy, C. Wessner and A. Wolff, editors, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2012. Chapter 6 of this report provides an overview of support by leading nations to develop their semiconductor, photovoltaic, advanced batteries, and pharmaceuticals industries.
• Lighting: Dr. Bringans described flexible displays and lighting that can be mounted on curved surfaces and can be rolled up to provide more versatility, energy efficiency, and robustness than rigid, flat displays.
• Displays: In her presentation, Julie Brown of Universal Display Corporation (UDC) said flexible display technologies could give consumers not only the flexibility and convenience of a newspaper, but also the vivid color and energy efficiency of cell phones. Dr. Brown previewed some of the design concepts being discussed by Nokia, Sony, and other companies that envision flexible displays that will be vivid and efficient, but also thin and rugged.
• Photovoltaic panels: Flexible photovoltaic (PV) panels that conform to curved surfaces are another application that offers both practical and aesthetic advantages over heavy and rigid glass-based PV panels.
• Sensors: Embedded in medical implants, flexible sensors can offer the benefits of flexibility and biocompatibility. In his conference presentation, Devanand Shenoy noted that the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) is investigating the use of flexible sensors in clothing and protective gear that can record the cumulative impact of blasts and other impacts on the brain. This application, he added, can also be used to track sport injuries such as those sustained by football players.
The second category of flexible electronics, Dr. Bringans said, concerns the manufacturing process. Describing ongoing efforts to use flexible substrates to develop roll-to-roll manufacturing at Hewlett-Packard (HP), Carl Taussig noted that a key goal was to produce kilometers of material at a time. Dr. Taussig noted that HP is also interested in adapting paper-like displays, using reflected but high-performance lighting displays, and leveraging the developments in organic light-emitting diode (OLED) lighting. “We see that as the first opportunity to get this stuff commercialized,” he said, adding that other groups, including UDC and General Electric, had demonstrated a roll-to-roll process for making white OLEDs. “We’d like to take that white OLED developed by others for a lighting application and turn it into a display,” he said. “The challenge there is whether we can process this material afterward when it is manufactured and laminated to a roll-to-roll backplane.”
“We like to be able to drop our tablet computers and not have them break, and I think that is going to happen. There are many by-products under development that can benefit from both flexibility and robustness, including RFIDs, photovoltaics, smart labels, lighting, smart phones, and tablets.”
Ross Bringans, Palo Alto Research Center
Key Applications for Flexible Electronics
Dr. Bringans further noted that although flexible electronics will lead to a variety of new technologies—and give rise to interesting business opportunities—in the end, “applications will drive the technology.” He noted, however, that consumers are less interested in technology for technology’s sake; people want technology to solve their problems. Moreover, these technological solutions, he said, have to come together in a way that is practical for consumers to use. Likewise, Andrew Hannah of Plextronics observed that applications of flexible electronics technologies that appeal to consumers would be needed to “kick-start these industries, which we all believe is going to be very important.” The priority, he stressed, must be a focus on the end users.
Speaking at the symposium, John Pellegrino of the Sensors and Electron Devices Directorate of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory noted that the military is seeking to be an early adopter of flexible electronics products. He added that many applications of flexible displays have similar or even identical military and civilian uses. The main difference, he added, is that the military versions may have to be packaged more ruggedly to endure operation in extreme environments, such as higher temperature or lower humidity, with no change in capability. In his conference presentation, Dr. Pellegrino identified key flexible electronics technologies that have dual uses:
• Sensors: Having learned to place sensors on airframes and air structures, the aircraft industry is in a position of leadership to adapt flexible sensors for both military and civilian helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
• Displays: Electronic readers, perhaps resembling a light and flexible iPad™, would show high-quality graphic images, such as photos and maps, and other information and network with other devices simply and securely. In military applications, such a device could be patched onto a combat uniform, significantly reducing the load that soldiers must carry.
• Arrays and grids: Manufactured by a roll-to-roll or hybrid process, flexible solar cells on tents, mess halls, or other structures in the field can generate their own power, reducing the logistical load of transported fuel.
FEDERAL AND STATE INITIATIVES TO SUPPORT FLEXIBLE ELECTRONICS
Given that a robust flexible electronics industry has the potential to improve the nation’s international competitiveness, generate high-value employment, and address national needs in areas like defense and energy, a number of federal agencies have supported the research, development, and
commercialization of a variety of flexible electronics applications. Representatives from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), NSF, DARPA, and the Army described their role in advancing flexible electronics technologies at the conference.
The NIST Role
Michael Schen of NIST summarized the many ways NIST can play a positive role in advancing emerging technologies. The process begins with the discovery, or proof of principle, where the NIST laboratories can help. As the technology begins to mature, NIST may become part of a consortium, such as the FlexTech Alliance, that helps to nurture the technology. This can both strengthen leadership of a new firm and clarify the objective of the technology and gaps that must be addressed. NIST can respond to this process both by assisting individual firms and by partnering with groups like the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI).
As a technology continues to emerge, Dr. Schen said, NIST laboratory programs continue their involvement. He noted that, when funding was available, NIST’s Technology Innovation Program had scaled up its competitions for advanced materials competitions in recent years to support the commercialization of flexible electronics. In addition, NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership can help facilitate linkages between users and providers of emerging technologies. This program specifically helps to lower business risk and promotes the confidence of small firms as they move forward.
The NSF Role
Pradeep Fulay reviewed the involvement of NSF in supporting flexible electronics research. He said that flexible electronics itself was funded primarily through the Foundation’s Division of Electrical, Communications, and Cyber Systems, and that the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program had funded many of the small companies working in the area. NSF also covered many areas of basic research of relevance to flexible electronics, as well as technology transfer and translational research.
He also reported that NSF supports a wide variety of flexible hybrid electronics research, organic and polymer electronics and optoelectronics, inorganic thin-film devices, organic and inorganic hybrid devices, and hybrid circuits and systems. Dr. Fulay noted that a central challenge for each of these areas of research concerned fabrication and manufacturing—how to achieve low-cost, high-throughput, and print compatibility.
Dr. Fulay said that NSF also provides research support and opportunities, including programs that encourage university-industrial partnerships. Depending on definitions, he said, NSF supported about 200 projects in flexible electronics, including work on transistors, OLEDs, zinc oxide, and flexibly printed electronics research. “Typically, these are small,
single-investigator projects, though the NSF does support an Engineering Research Center in solid-state lighting and a lot of instrumentation through the Materials Research Initiative. The NSF also encourages strong industrial interaction, including a number of programs directed at SBIR/STTR programs and GOALI programs.”
The Army’s Support for the Flexible Display Center
Dr. Pellegrino described the Army’s sponsorship of the Flexible Display Center (FDC) at Arizona State University as a “nontraditional” kind of partnership, including industry as a full participant with the academic community. This helps to solve the “interstitial” problems between different domains, he said, and allows the partnership to focus on the applications important to the industry, as well as those the Army needs. At the same time, he said, until the industry can move past the fundamental manufacturing challenges, “no single industry is going to be able to jump ahead. This [an organization like the FDC] is just one way of getting some of those common problems solved.”
He noted that, while cost is always a consideration, the Army also seeks value. Balancing the cost of products are their potential new uses, and characteristics such as ruggedness and reduced weight. Already, he said, the partnership was seeing the value of creating large-area devices that had relatively high resolution and that could be lifted off and packaged as a flexible organic device.
Dr. Pellegrino said that “in very round numbers” the Army was spending about $2 million a year on the FDC, much of which supported research related to flexible electronics. In addition, several million dollars went into related activities, such as infrastructure, developing tool sets, and early applications of materials devices, an amount that holds relatively steady from year to year. This amount was increased by matching dollars from industry, which, in the case of the FlexTech Alliance, was a 60-40 match.
Targeting Transformative Technologies with DARPA
Dr. Shenoy, then the Program Manager at the Microsystems Technology Office at DARPA, noted that his agency seeks to leverage breakthroughs, not just advance an area of interest. In the area of flexible electronics, the primary opportunity is to manufacture at low cost, moving past the current industrial approach of using foundries and masks, and moving into custom design and rapid prototyping. Whereas conventional processing of electronics can take about six weeks, printing electronics can be done in about six days. “There will be tremendous savings when we are able to print,” he said. “But you have to achieve the performance to make this more interesting.”
He reviewed some of the most promising and application-rich areas, including thermal applications, portable imaging technologies, and imaging
An Example of a Government-Industry Partnership Flexible Lighting
In her remarks at the conference, Julie Brown of UDC said that her company’s core OLED technology sits on a flexible substrate about 100 microns thick and is rugged enough to absorb hammer blows. Development of the technology began in DARPA and moved into the Army, and UDC had been funded by the Army to build full-color, active-matrix OLED flexible displays. UDC works with L3 Communications and several other partners who were responsible for the backplane and systems integration. She noted that UDC had delivered the first units to the Army in Fort Dix the previous August for field testing, with good early results. “They had all our units laid out on the table with streaming video from the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] above the tent,” Dr. Brown said. “So we have flexible electronic technology now being fed into the military.”
sensors integrated with amplifying circuitry. In the last area, he said neither the sensors nor the amplifiers were yet good enough, and DARPA was working to address those challenges. Like Dr. Pellegrino, he emphasized the promise of physiological monitoring for warfighters, in which sensors could continuously monitor vital signs; he also mentioned structural prognostics using sensors on platforms to monitor wear and tear on systems continuously.
Responding to a query on the scale of DARPA’s investments, Dr. Shenoy said that the size of any program would depend on the objective. As an example, the Micro-Systems Technology Office may invest “something like $10 million per program per year.” A curved focal plane program he was managing received $25 million for four to five years. The work of his office was also accompanied by other related programs, such as the flexible electronics program recently initiated by the Defense Sciences Office.
A State’s Effort: Building a Flexible Electronics Custer in Ohio
Byron Clayton of the Northeast Ohio Technology Coalition (NorTech) noted that his organization is spearheading efforts to create a new cluster in flexible electronics in Northeast Ohio.5 Dr. Clayton said that NorTech’s efforts are supported by a number of broader state initiatives to encourage technology-based growth. Key among these initiatives is the Ohio Third Frontier program, which invests $2.3 billion to support applied research, commercialization,
5For an extended review of public, private, and university-based initiatives under way in Ohio to grow a flexible electronics cluster, see National Research Council, Building the Ohio Innovation Economy: Summary of a Symposium, C. Wessner, Rapporteur, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2013, pp. 117-128.
entrepreneurial assistance, early-stage capital, and worker training in the state. For example, the state’s Edison Technology Centers are designed to help existing businesses commercialize their products and expand, while the Ohio Venture Capital Fund provides funding to firms that channel at least 50 percent of their investments into technology firms in Ohio.
Dr. Clayton noted that a key factor in successfully building an innovation cluster was to develop a shared agenda among cluster members that included pursuit of not only state funding, but also federal and private funding. A second point was to connect competencies across the state. Talent and resources across northeastern and northwestern regions of Ohio are now being connected with a near-term focus to develop a more widely shared agenda among a greater number of participants. A final point was to encourage the state to provide funding for market pull.
He said that Ohio had seven programs specifically designed to foster cluster development but had not yet supported one for flexible electronics. Even without that support, he said, a flexible electronics cluster emerged on its own. “That shows the power of what can happen as an industry emerges,” he said. He estimated that although flexible electronics was relatively new to Ohio as an area of investment, about $8 million has already been invested in the field since 2008, with an additional investment expected from the Ohio Third Frontier program.
EUROPEAN AND ASIAN INITIATIVES FOR FLEXIBLE ELECTRONICS
Seeking to capture the global market opportunity in flexible electronics, major U.S. competitors have initiated large and dedicated programs, supported with significant funding. The conference included representatives of research efforts from Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan who described their nations’ initiatives to develop and commercialize flexible electronics technologies.
German Initiatives to Support Flexible Electronics
In his presentation, Christian May of the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems in Dresden provided an overview of German strengths in the development and commercialization of flexible electronics. Germany’s advantages, he said, include strong research and development programs in OLEDs, printed radio-frequency identifications (RFIDs), and transistors; a very good supply chain, especially in materials and production machinery; and the draw of the large European market. He cited, on the other hand, a notable lack of startups and entrepreneurs “with a clear view from research to manufacturing.”
Turning to the organic electronics situation in Germany, he noted the major role of government support in the development of flexible electronics technologies, beginning with the German Federal Ministry of Education and
Research, which over 10 years has provided about €30 million in funding for organic electronics research. Dr. May also described several key instruments to fund the development and commercialization of flexible electronics in Germany.
• OLED Alliance: Started in 2006, this alliance is focused on flexible lighting applications. The three large private partners were the dominant German lighting companies—Osram and Philips, and Applied Materials. The OLED Alliance has received €120 million from the government, with industry commitments to invest five times that amount, i.e., about 700 million euros.
• Innovation Alliance OPV: Started in 2008 to develop organic photovoltaics (OPV), this alliance has received €60 million in funding and uses the same basic partnership model as the OLED Alliance.
• Clusters of Excellence: Candidates have been invited to compete for nomination as Clusters of Excellence, where each cluster would consist of a consortium of universities, research and development (R&D) organizations linked to universities, and companies. Dr. May noted that a cluster in Dresden had been selected to work on silicon-based, high-efficiency devices for computing. A second cluster in Heidelberg was designed to emphasize organic electronics, for which it received €40 million in funding, matched by industry contributions, for the period 2008-2013.
• The Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystem (IPMS): A part of the Fraunhofer network, this institute is funded by several levels of government: the German federal government, the local government of the Free State of Saxony, and the European Commission. Led by Dr. Hubert Lakner and Dr. Karl Leo, IPMS has a permanent staff of 207, with a budget of €23 million. Dr. May noted that IPMS has a large number of research and industrial partners, both in Dresden and in the surrounding area. This network consists of collaborators who support the “full value chain” of activities “from materials and modeling to organic technology to tools to products.”
Taiwanese Initiatives to Support Flexible Electronics
In his conference presentation, Janglin Chen of the Taiwan Display Technology Center began by observing that the R&D effort in Taiwan is primarily driven by the national government through the Ministry of Economic Affairs. ITRI, a not-for-profit organization, plays the leading role in identifying and developing promising new technologies, along with the major research universities. “At a certain point in technology development,” he said, “they invite industry to participate and invest, and then the government will come in with matching funds. That’s how the industry is gradually built up.”
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is widely seen as a major factor behind Germany’s continued export success in advanced industries. Established in 1949 as part of the effort to rebuild Germany’s research infrastructure,a the nonprofit organization is one of the world’s largest and most successful applied technology agencies. Fraunhofer’s 80 research institutes and centers in Germany and around the world employ some 18,000 people—4,000 of them with Ph.D.s and master’s degrees—and operate under an annual budget of €2 billion in 2012. Fraunhofer engineers develop intellectual property on a contract basis, hone product prototypes and industrial processes, and work with manufacturers on the factory floor to help implement new production methods.
One-third of Fraunhofer’s funding consists of core money provided by the German federal and state governments, roughly another third comes from research contracts with government entities, and a final third is provided through research contracts with the private sector, which are frequently supported by government grants and other financial assistance. While some studies suggest that well over 80 percent of funding comes from taxpayers,b as Dr. May noted, the institutes’ direct contracts with industry demonstrates the attractiveness of the work they are doing is for industry, “which is to bridge the gap between basic research and the work done by industry.”
aFor a history of the organization, see 60 Years of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Munich: Fraunhofer-Gasellschaft, 2009. The publication can be accessed at <http://www.germaninnovation.org/shared/content/documents/60YearsofFraunhoferGesellschaft.pdf>.
bHouse of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Technology and Innovation Centres. Second Report of Session 2010-11, Volume I, Report, p. 27.
Dr. Chen said that flexible electronics was formally emphasized in Taiwan beginning in 2006. In the five years since then, the Taiwanese government has invested close to $200 million in this technology. “So the government is really behind the whole incentive,” he said. “We believe this is the first significant opportunity in flexible electronics. Basically, our strategy focuses on two main themes that have to do with lifestyle. One is the mobile lifestyle, and the other is green energy-saving display.”
These large investments help Taiwanese firms become more internationally competitive in emerging technologies. Dr. Chen observed that the recent financial crisis, which had put great pressure on some innovative but small Western companies to seek additional funding or even buyouts, was seen as an opportunity for Taiwan. The best-known example was the absorption of E Ink into the large Taiwanese firm PVI, the combination that is now known as E Ink Holdings, Inc. E Ink Holdings now supplies e-paper modules to Amazon,
Sony, Barnes & Noble, and many other firms. In another case, the giant Taiwanese firm AU Optronics Corp bought another American company called SiPix that had developed a microscale e-paper that is imprinted with minute holders for nanoquantities of fluid or particles and can be produced in sheets by roll-to-roll technology. In summary, he said, “one firms’ demise happened to be the other firm’s fortune.” As a result, much of the world’s e-reader technology is now concentrated in Taiwan.
Korean Initiatives to Support Flexible Electronics
In his presentation, Changhee Lee of Seoul National University noted that Korea is very active in developing printing technology for displays, especially large-area, low-cost eco-displays, and flexible displays. In commercializing these technologies, Korea could draw on its strong supply chains and the manufacturing and marketing strengths of leading companies like Samsung and LG.
Dr. Lee provided a detailed map of clusters of Korean universities, research institutes, and corporations that are working cooperatively to advance a variety of flexible electronics technologies.
• Daejeon City is home to the Electronics Telecommunications Research Center (ETRI). One of the largest such centers in Korea, ETRI focuses on flex and OLED lighting. Also located there is the Korean Research Institute of Chemical Technology, which conducts research on printing technologies; the Korean Institute in Machinery and Mechanics, for research on printing machines and technology; and the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology, a largely theoretical research institute.
• Jeonju City hosts a branch of KETI, and the Korean Printed Electronics Center. The Ministry of the Knowledge Economy provided $70 million from 2004 to 2009 in support for the center, with the local government contributing as well. In all, some 59 universities, small companies, and other participating organizations collaborate at the center.
• Sunchon City is home to a Regional Innovation Center (RIC) and a leading university program that is supported by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology. Sunchon National University has a printed electronics department with both undergraduate and graduate students that is “quite unique,” he said.
• Pohang City is home to the premier Korean research facility for nanotechnology, the Pohang Science and Technology University, a small research university and cluster.
• Suwon City is home to Samsung, one of the major technology companies in Korea investing in flexible electronics, Samsung
maintains most of its facilities at a large complex in Kiheung, including Samsung Electronics (R&D on semiconductors, liquid-crystal displays [LCDs], and Si-solar cells) and Samsung SMD (OLED R&D).
• Kumi City and Paju City are home to LG Display. Dr. Lee said that LG intends to invest more than $1 billion in 2010 and 2011 to develop and commercialize OLED products.
• Sunchon City is home to several small companies that make roll-to-roll RFIDs.
Dr. Lee highlighted the important role that the Korean Display Industry Association and the Korea Printed Electronics Association are playing in moving the industry forward, saying they have “allowed the display industry to become strong.” In addition, the government helped by asking industry (especially Samsung and LG) to support the Korean research institutes, while investing about $5 million per year in public funds. The industry associations have also urged Samsung and LG to start developing facilities to produce large-area OLEDs, which the country did not yet have. Dr. Lee noted that each company is forming a consortium to develop this technology and will compete for a contract to develop it.
BUILDING A GLOBALLY COMPETITIVE FLEXIBLE ELECTRONICS INDUSTRY IN THE UNITED STATES
With the potential to revolutionize electronics, flexible electronics is expected to be a destabilizing technology. Furthermore, as Malcolm Thompson of RPO Inc. observed, the industry is moving along a rapid growth path similar to those of semiconductors in the 1990s, and then flat-panel displays of the 2000s. While acknowledging the inherent limitations of predicting the future, he cautioned that the potential of this market is such that the United States should not neglect to develop a strong domestic flexible electronics industry.
Seeking to capture global markets, governments in Europe and East Asia are making substantial investments in the development and commercialization of flexible electronics technologies with funding levels that dwarf U.S. investments. One point of comparison is the nearly $720 million in funding commitments by the European Union and various European national
governments for the period 2001-2013 vis-à-vis the U.S. government commitment of $327 million over the same period.6
Where will the leaders of this new technology be? “In Asia, the U.S., Europe, or some mixture?”
“Invented Here; Manufactured There?”
Sridhar Kota, then of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, cited in his keynote remarks the benefits to consumers of low-cost flexible electronics applications—from smart phones and sensors to monitor health, to smart bandages and batteries. “This is all exciting stuff,” he said. “Hopefully we still have an opportunity to manufacture them here, in the U.S., so we can reap the benefits of our investments in basic research.”
Dr. Kota cautioned that domestic investments in flexible electronics research and development do not automatically translate into a competitive advantage for the United States. Given the significant investments being made in Europe and Asia in applications for flexible electronics, he warned, there could be a repeat of “things invented here but manufactured elsewhere; industries we have already lost, and others that are at risk.” Citing research by Gary Pisano and Willy Shih, he cited a partial list of technologies that have already been lost to manufacturers abroad. This list includes, he said, “fabless” chips, compact fluorescent bulbs, LCDs for monitors, TVs, and mobile phones; lithium-ion, lithium polymer, and nickel–metal hydride (NiMH) batteries for cell phones, portable consumer electronics, laptops, and power tools; crystalline and polycrystalline silicon solar cells; desktop, notebook, and netbook PCs; lowend servers; hard disk drives; consumer-networking gear such as routers, access points, and home set-top boxes; advanced composites used in sporting goods and other consumer gear; advanced ceramics; and integrated circuit packaging.”7
The Future of Customizable Manufacturing
Contrasting the case of the LCD platform display industry, which moved to the Far East “because a lot of the drivers and backplane technology required to manufacture the devices were there,” Mr. Hannah said that the flexible electronics would have “a much simplified device structure” and could be manufactured and distributed locally in the United States. This would bring an advantage in transportation and lower overall costs of ownership. “I think a new model can exist, especially when there’s not a lot of low-cost labor associated with the manufacturing process. I think you can build that industry in the U.S. and you can keep it here.”
6FlexTech Alliance, “Flexible Electronics: Government Investment and R&D Programs in the U.S. and the European Union,” November 2008.
7Gary Pisano and Willy Shih, “Restoring American Competitiveness,” Harvard Business Review July-August, 2009.
In his remarks, Malcolm Thompson noted that “manufacturing is going to be customizable, and diversified products are going to be manufactured closer to the end user.” He offered the “simplistic” example of printing, which 20 or 30 years ago would be done at a print shop, which “manufactured” the print for the customer. Today, he said, we each have a printer in our home, which means that each person is the manufacturer of printed documents. He said that the new paradigm would feature much smaller manufacturing facilities located much closer to the point of use. Most importantly, he said, “you’re going to turn around a product very quickly, in a matter of a few days. I think that’s a really important difference.” Other future electronics opportunities, he said, would emerge in the category of flexible and potentially printed electronics at human scales. These were likely to include conformable and portable photovoltaics, wearable health monitors, sensors, and flexible displays and e-books.
Reflecting on the potential implications, Mr. Hannah noted that Europe seems to be betting on this outcome in its efforts to bring the manufacturing base back to Europe. “That’s why all these initiatives are happening in the U.K. and Germany, for example. They want the next-generation manufacturing industry to happen in their back yard. We should be feeling the same.”
Growing the U.S. Flexible Electronics Industry
In his presentation, Mr. Hannah noted that establishing state-of-the-art manufacturing in the United States requires advances in the manufacturing process, including testing, validating, and improving technology through prototypes and demonstrators. To do this, he said, firms in the industry need to share infrastructure, especially for the prototyping stage of development. This, in turn, requires effective government-industry collaboration.
Describing the scenario for the flexible display and lighting industry, Julie Brown suggested that developing a significant flexible OLED lighting industry in the United States would need incentives to bridge the gap between prototyping and marketing. OLED lights were not likely to be launched at a price of $20 or $30, but at $2 or $3. Arriving at lower prices would require both incentives and collaboration between the Department of Energy and potential users. She urged more collaboration between “good work being done in the Department of Energy and various partners, especially U.S. infrastructure companies, universities, and government agencies.” A goal of such partnerships, she said, is to view OLED lighting as an overall system. For flexible displays, she suggested that mandating both efficient lighting and wall plug applications, such as television monitors, would inspire new applications and advance the industry.
The Role for Industry Consortia
In his conference remarks, Dr. Thompson said that, given that materials, equipment, and processes cut across many research areas, which are
beyond the reach of any single company, a consortium would allow collaboration to overcome challenges that are common to all sectors and companies. For example, all of them need expensive, precompetitive research that reaches across applications and is capable of broad adoption. “What the consortium essentially does is to make sure the picture is complete and allow identification of technology gaps.” This can be done through roadmapping and by ensuring that everybody is working together in a coordinated way, while avoiding having too many people working on the same thing.
The Importance of Roadmaps
In his conference remarks, Dan Gamota noted that iNEMI has developed three iterations of a flexible electronics roadmap, “each one lasting two years.” One purpose of the roadmap was to stimulate standards. It also provided the members who were entrepreneurs an opportunity to see the most significant “gaps and needs” of the industry. With this perspective of the supply-chain landscape from customers, competitors, and suppliers, firms had a better chance of producing a product that could meet real needs and generate significant markets. Some of those needs, such as high-performance materials, had begun to emerge at the very beginning of the roadmapping process.
Dr. Gamota noted that the iNEMI roadmap is similar to the International Technology Roadmap of Semiconductors created by SEMATECH, which served as a model. It contains a situation analysis of technology and product, such as substrates and their quantified key needs, gaps, and “showstoppers.” The roadmap goes on to give physical tables listing the attributes today, those that are midterm goals five years from now, and those that are goals 10 years from now.
Need for an Industry Champion
Among the objectives of a consortium, Dr. Thompson said, is to provide leadership, synergy, and collaboration. It must also address dual-use requirements and create an IP policy that encourages innovation and commercialization. It must focus on U.S.-based companies and the creation of state-of-the-art manufacturing jobs. He emphasized that manufacturing is no longer a dirty industry, but a job that requires much more training, intelligence, focus, and fast turnaround. Creating such an organization, he emphasized, requires a champion, and the consortium itself must be one “that we can trust, because that’s what we need.”
Partnering with Government
One reason to support a consortium, Dr. Thompson said, was that the interests of the electronics industry and government are intertwined. For example, defense and homeland security are dependent on the leadership of the
U.S. electronics industry. Another is the realization that the electronics industry has the potential for powerful job creation. He said that the U.S. Display Consortium and its successor, the FlexTech Alliance, had done well in coordinating the interests of the government and the industry.
Strengthening the Supply Chain
Dr. Thompson said that he believed that a national consortium could have a catalytic impact on flexible electronics industries. A primary task, he said, would be to oversee the development of the supply chain, which would be very complex and dynamic. He also suggested sponsorship of academic and industry R&D, a traditional strength, to maintain a flow of new manufacturing materials and equipment.
A Network of Facilities
In his Roundtable remarks, Ananth Dodabalapur of the University of Texas at Austin said that he wanted to recommend a closer look at what he termed the “successful” model of NSF-sponsored National Nanofabrication Infrastructure Network (NNIN) to support the development of flexible electronics technologies. This program was started in the days of the semiconductors and expanded with the advent of nanoelectronics and was still “very functional.”
He said that the NNIN model was based on a network of host universities throughout the country. Each host university maintains a set of fabrication equipment, which was used by students and postdocs of that university, as well as by startup companies and larger companies that pay a certain fee. He said that one such facility, focusing on conventional microelectronics, was located in Texas. Many startups, including one or two that he had created, benefited from the infrastructure. “So it’s an equal-access system where I see a lot of value and a lot of creative intellectual property generated—not just by university researchers, but also by startup people.”
Dr. Dodabalapur proposed the creation of a similar network of infrastructure facilities for flexible electronics, “some kind of national flexible electronics research infrastructure network to be used by university researchers and industry, which includes both startup companies as well as larger companies.” He noted that something similar already functioned well in Arizona, facilitating interactions. “I think that could be a powerful way of keeping our innovation engine running smoothly, and also helping to make the important transition to commercialization.”
THE TASK AHEAD
Michael Andrews acknowledged the “great debates” in the United States about how best to sustain domestic manufacturing and economic growth.
“Many other nations don’t have such debates,” he said, “they just go do it. Our challenge is how we can better do these things, which is always tough. We’ve invested reasonably well in the basic research, and in some of the applied technology areas. It’s time to hit harder on developing prototypes and demonstrations, and in advancing the technology to the next level of manufacturing.”
Based on this workshop and additional reports and deliberations, he said, the Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy panel on Best Practice in National Programs for Flexible Electronics would develop recommendations on these questions to the nation. It would be looking in particular at better models for collaboration and community to develop the technologies, which were both “very difficult.” He said that the virtue of collaboration was that it could make “one plus one equal three,” but the hard question was how to apply the best balance of incentives to make this happen.