A. Flexible electronics describes circuits that can bend and stretch, enabling significant versatility in applications and the prospect of low-cost manufacturing processes. They represent an important technological advance, in terms of their performance characteristics and potential range of applications, ranging from medical care, packaging, lighting and signage, consumer electronics, and alternative energy (especially solar energy).1 What these technologies have in common is a dependence on efficient manufacturing that currently requires improved technology, processes, tooling, and materials, as well as ongoing research.2
- Performance characteristics: Flexible electronic devices will have performance characteristics that cannot be obtained from conventional rigid technologies. In addition, printed roll-to-roll processes, with their lower unit cost and large scale of production, promise major reductions in the cost of sophisticated electronic devices as well as significant environmental benefits.
- Applications: The applications flowing from flexible and printed electronics are vast and diverse, from industrial to commercial, medical to military. Flexible electronics has the potential to generate new forms of display, sensing, and imaging and may be able to transform production
1 See Chapter 2 for a review of the advantages and potential applications of flexible electronics.
2 See Stephen Forrest, “The Path to Ubiquitous and Low-Cost Organic Electronic Appliances on Plastic,” Nature 428 (April 2004): 911–918.
processes across the electronics industry.3 Flexible electronics are expected to become a General Purpose Technology.
B. Flexible electronics markets are expected to grow rapidly and represent an important competitive opportunity for U.S. firms.4
- Displacing conventional electronics: Although the global recession and technological hurdles have slowed growth of new industries based on flexible electronics during the past 5 years, over the long term these industries will compete with and partially displace conventional electronics technologies. This dynamic is already being manifested in RFID tags and OLED displays.5
- Rapid growth: Some industry experts predict that the market for global flexible electronics will experience a double-digit growth rate, reaching $250 billion by 2025.6 Whatever the actual rate, substantial growth seems probable and is reflected in global investments.
C. The applications of flexible electronics technology in the military sphere are expected to significantly enhance the mobility, care, and capabilities of combat troops and equipment.7 Many of these applications also have significant potential in large-scale commercial markets (e.g., health care, power generation, environmental protection, and transportation). Conversely, commercial products increasingly lead military applications (e.g. smartphones) and can be adopted and/or adapted for military use, a trend which is likely to be observable in flexible electronics as the industry matures.
- Lightweight and low energy: Flexible, durable displays and sensors embedded in uniforms and mounted in vehicles and aircraft, hold the potential to convey critical information and communications with significant reductions to weight and with minimal energy consumption. Flexible batteries and conformable photovoltaic devices will improve the mobility of U.S. forces.
- Ambulatory monitoring: Flexible devices are also expected to provide ambulatory health monitoring of troops in combat and allow for the delivery of medication in emergencies.
3 See also the summary of presentations by Ross Bringans of PARC, Julie Brown of Universal Display Corporation, and Carl Taussig of Hewlettt-Packard Company in National Research Council, Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing, and Growth in the United States, Summary of a Symposium, rapporteur S. Shivakumar (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2013).
4 See Chapter 2 for a review of the market growth of flexible electronics.
5 Brown, “Impact of a Flexible Form Factor for Displays and Lighting,” in National Research Council, Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing, and Growth.
6 TMR, Flexible Electronics Market—Global Industry Size, Share, Trends, Analysis and Forecasts 2012–2018 (2013).
7 See the summaries of presentations by representatives from DARPA and the Army Research Laboratory in National Research Council, Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing, and Growth. See also Chapter 4 of this volume for a summary description of military applications.
D. The U.S. flexible electronics industry has the potential to build on existing U.S. strengths and public and private investments in research and development.
- U.S. strengths: U.S. strengths include deep industrial competency in equipment development, microelectronics, printing, advanced materials and chemistry, and nanotechnology; an outstanding system of research universities with relevant curricula; government organizations with long experience working with industry to foster innovation; and arguably the world’s best infrastructure and entrepreneurial culture for fostering innovative startups.8
- Public support: The U.S. federal government promotes the development of capabilities in flexible electronics through partnerships with NIST and funding from the NSF, DARPA, and DOE.9 A number of U.S. states have also established research centers for flexible and printed electronics. Support for the development of regional innovation clusters in flexible electronics is provided by the Small Business Administration and the Economic Development Administration of the Department of Commerce. Several federal laboratories also conduct research directly applicable to the field of flexible electronics.10
- Industry partnerships: With support from the Army and Air Force Research Laboratories, the U.S. Special Operations Command, and its members, organizations such as the FlexTech Alliance promote collaboration among industry, academia, and research organizations to advance displays and flexible, printed electronics from R&D to commercialization and seek to foster the development of a domestic supply chain for flexible, printed electronics and displays.11
E. Seeking to capture the global market opportunity in flexible electronics, major U.S. competitors in Europe and East Asia have launched targeted, large-scale programs, with significant government funding to develop these new technologies, refine them, and ultimately manufacture them within their national borders. National and regional investment undertaken by our foreign competitors are significantly larger than comparable
8 For a review of U.S. competitive strengths and the changing global competitive challenge, see National Research Council, Rising to the Challenge, U.S. Innovation Policies for a Global Economy, eds. A. Wolff and C. Wessner (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2012).
9 For a review of federal and state initiatives, including the role of NIST, NSF, DARPA, and the Army, see National Research Council, Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing, and Growth in the United States, Summary of a Symposium, 2013.
10 See Chapter 7 of this report for a review of the sources of federal support.
11 See Chapter 7 for a summary description of leading corporate research efforts and the role of the FlexTech Alliance. FlexTech members include startup companies, large companies (such as DuPont and Lockheed Martin), supplier companies (such as E Ink), universities (including Arizona State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Kent State), federal research laboratories, and regional nonprofit development organizations.
U.S. investment and more weighted toward later-stage applied research and development.
East Asia: East Asian firms dominate the manufacture of conventional displays and are using their installed manufacturing base in that field to leverage their entry into flexible displays with consumer applications.12
i. Technological competency: Large Asian industrial groups enjoy not only ample financial resources but also deep industrial and technological competencies in relevant fields, such as microelectronics, optoelectronics, materials science, and printing.
ii. Government support: The efforts of these firms are also backed by government programs, which emphasize applied research in industry and government research institutes that collaborate closely and effectively with industry.13
European programs at the national and European Union levels: These programs focus on enhancing collaborations between academia and industry and provide mechanisms to diffuse intellectual property.14
i. Infrastructure for applied research: Europe enjoys not only a strong fundamental research base but also a formidable infrastructure for applied research in relevant technology areas, which includes inter alia Germany’s Fraunhofer institutes, a new group of research centers in the United Kingdom, and world-class institutes such as IMEC in Belgium, the Holst Centre in the Netherlands, and Finland’s VTT.
ii. Government support: The European developmental effort is broad in both a geographic and technological sense. It is supported by successive layers of government at the national, regional, and local levels, and is engaging companies with a long tradition of collaboration to achieve technological objectives.
- U.S. investment in flexible electronics, in comparison to our national competitors: The United States does not have a nationwide infrastructure supporting transitional innovation by small and large companies. Foreign national and supranational programs to support flexible electronics dwarf current U.S. efforts.15 A point of comparison is the nearly $720 million in funding commitments by the European Union and various European
12 See Chapters 4 and 6 for a review of review of Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese initiatives in flexible electronics.
13 See, for example, Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute. For a detailed description of ITRI, see Appendix A3, “Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute: A Cradle of Future Industries,” in National Research Council, 21st Century Manufacturing, The Role of the MEP Program (Washington DC: The National Academies Press, 2013).
14 See Chapters 4 and 5 for a review of European initiatives in flexible electronics.
15 See Chapter 7 for a review of leading U.S. efforts in flexible electronics. For a comparison of known government funding efforts in flexible electronics, see Table 3-1.
national governments for the period 2001 to 2013 versus the U.S. government commitment of $327 million over the same period.
- Capturing the benefits: A key challenge is to capitalize on investments in research and development in flexible electronics through scaled-up production of applications in the United States.18
- Virtuous cycle: Retaining such production onshore contributes to a virtuous cycle of manufacturing expertise, connected research, and supply chain development. Initiatives such as Ohio’s FlexMatters and the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University and many other smaller but impactful research groups with tight industrial partnerships demonstrate that research originating in U.S. universities can be translated into domestic manufacturing operations and jobs by companies that compete on a global basis.19
G. Significant U.S. expansion in the market for flexible electronics technologies is not likely to occur in the absence of mechanisms to address investment risks, the sharing of intellectual property, and the diverse technology requirements associated with developing and manufacturing flexible electronics technologies.20 Linking industry, university, and
16 Jonathan Epstein, “U.S. Interest, Security, Manufacturing and Growth,” in National Research Council, Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing, and Growth.
17 See Chapter 1 of this report for a summary of the manufacturing challenge. See also Sridhar Kota, “The Flexible Electronics Opportunity and Industry Challenges: Perspectives from Industry,” in National Research Council, Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing, and Growth.
18 See Richard M. Locke and Rachel L. Wellhausen, eds., Production in the Innovation Economy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014) and Suzanne Berger, Making in America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013). These MIT reports argue that the United States needs to actively move research ideas to market if it is to benefit from public and private investments in research and development. They note, moreover, that retaining manufacturing capabilities is important given the high level of innovation and learning involved in manufacturing, which feeds back into research and development. These MIT reports cite an influential 2012 report by the National Research Council that finds that given the high priority and significant resources provided in leading nations on translational research, applications, and manufacturing of high-technology products, U.S. investments in research and development no longer automatically translate into production in the United States and the concomitant benefits in high-value employment and economic growth. See National Research Council, Rising to the Challenge. For a review of the experience of the display industry, which though developed in the United States, migrated to East Asia, see Chapter 7 of this report.
19 For a review of the FlexMatters initiative, see Chapter 7 of this volume. See also presentations in Panel VIII on the FlexMatters initiative summarized in National Research Council, Building the Ohio Innovation Economy, Summary of a Symposium, rapporteur C. Wessner (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2013).
20 Research consortia are one mechanism to address these needs. See the discussion in Chapter 1 on the role and effectiveness of industry consortia. For a review of the potential of industry consortia in flexible electronics, see the summary of a presentation by Malcolm J. Thompson, “A Consortium
government is a proven means to galvanize industry and promote cooperation in applied research and development.
- Fostering collaboration: The development of materials, equipment, and processes cuts across many research areas, which are normally beyond the reach of any single company. Well-designed consortia are one of several mechanisms that can foster the collaboration needed to share costs, equipment, and pool precompetitive research, thereby addressing challenges that are common to all sectors and companies.
- Reducing development costs: Consortia and other collaborative mechanisms can cut development costs and accelerate the development and commercialization of new technologies.21 These mechanisms can also play an important role in workforce training and developing a domestic supply chain and relevant standards, while providing opportunities for benchmarking equipment from manufacturers and contributing to a robust research base.
- Advancing national programs: Recognizing these advantages, foreign governments have made consortia a significant feature of national innovation programs to support flexible electronics. In Europe, for example, there are at present, more than 40 consortia of various sizes and focus that are advancing a variety of applications in flexible electronics.22
H. Collaboration among industry, universities, and government offers the best prospect for achieving the critical levels of investment and the acceleration of new technology development that is required to develop a vibrant flexible electronics industry. Consortia can reduce individual company risk, spread costs, facilitate development of industry roadmaps and standards, provide a focal point for collaboration with public research organizations, enhance technology diffusion, and provide an early-stage basis for the development of industry supply chains. Best practices in innovation programs for flexible electronics include the following:23
- Consortia with industry, government, federal laboratory, and university participation.
- Development of roadmaps for manufacturing technology and pre-commercial and near-to-market applications.
in Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing and Growth in the United States,” in National Research Council, Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing, and Growth.
21 Collaborative agreements can assume a variety of forms, ranging from informal networks and alliances to joint delivery of projects. For a summary of the academic literature on the effectiveness of industry consortia, see Table 1-1 in this volume. See also the summary of a presentation by Thompson, “Consortium in Flexible Electronics,” in National Research Council, Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing, and Growth.
22 For a detailed review of Asian and European programs, see Chapters 4, 5, and 6 of this report.
23 These best practices are based on a review of U.S. and foreign programs analyzed by the committee and summarized in this report.
- A focus on supply chain and infrastructure development to build and sustain U.S.-based manufacturing.
- Sponsorship of collaborative academic and industry R&D for new manufacturing materials, equipment, and processes.
- Sponsorship for testing and demonstration of manufacturing advances.
While cognizant of resource limitations, our recommendations build upon and reinforce efforts that are already under way at the federal and regional levels to foster a strong domestic capability in flexible electronics manufacturing, which could help secure the jobs and the growth that can be generated by this promising industry. Major advances in recent years in materials performance and circuit designs have created additional opportunities for a viable U.S. flexible electronics manufacturing industry. Consistent with the challenges and opportunities outlined in the findings above, these recommendations seek not only to stimulate innovation, but also to keep the technology and commercialization process in the United States, which is essential for the United States to secure a leading position in flexible electronics. While interconnected, the recommendations below address different facets of this challenge.
A. The United States should increase the funding of basic research related to flexible electronics and augment support for university-based consortia to develop prototypes, manufacturing processes, and products in close collaboration with contributing industrial partners.24
B. Consortia, bringing together industry, universities, and various levels of government, should be used as a means of fostering precompetitive applied research in flexible electronics.25 The federal government can utilize its research funding process to encourage and incentivize the private sector to collaborate with respect to the precompetitive R&D necessary to bring emerging flexible electronics technologies to market.
- Mechanisms for cooperation: In the United States, federal funding for applied research in flexible electronics should support the formation of industry consortia or other cooperative research organizations to facilitate innovation in manufacturing, development of common
24 See Charles M. Vest, The American Research University from World War II to World Wide Web, University of California Press, June 1, 2007, 32. Dr. Vest noted that “in this age of increasingly cooperative innovation, and fast paced change, there are many opportunities to serve through ‘relevant’ research and development that will complement, not distort, our core academic mission to bring new intellectual challenges to our faculty and students.”
25 See Finding H on the merits of industry consortia and Finding I, which identifies industry-led consortia as a leading best practice in national innovation programs for flexible electronics.
standards, training, and the formation of partnerships with universities and public laboratories.
- Need for diversity: Flexible electronics refers to a family of technologies with many applications. Given the diversity of potential flexible electronics applications, manufacturing processes, and base materials, there is need for multiple pathways to address the challenges faced by industry.
- Proximity and location: The location of individual clusters should be conditioned on the availability of university and industry partners with the ability to provide significant financial resources, as well as the requisite infrastructure, skills, and related research programs in science, engineering, and mathematics.
- Built-in evaluation: The consortia should feature built-in evaluation systems and procedures to enable internal peer review and self-assessment of team and individual performance and progress toward agreed consortium objectives.
C. The United States should establish and support a network of user facilities dedicated to flexible electronics.
- Partnership of user facilities: An integrated networked partnership of user facilities can provide universities greater access to federal fabrication equipment and expertise and provide incubation facilities for small companies. The NSF National Nanofabrication Infrastructure Network is an example of such a nationwide network.26
- NNMI: The National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) initiative could also include topics relevant to flexible electronics manufacturing. The NNMI could play a positive role in developing and initially supporting institutions, research, and relevant consortia.27
26 See remarks by Dr. Ananth Dodabalapur and Dr. Pradeep Fulay in National Research Council, Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing, and Growth. “The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) is an integrated partnership of fourteen user facilities, supported by NSF, providing unparalleled opportunities for nanoscience and nanotechnology research. The network provides extensive support in nanoscale fabrication, synthesis, characterization, modeling, design, computation, and hands-on training in an open hands-on environment available to all qualified users.” Accessed at <http://www.nnin.org/>.
27 The United States lacks a well-established integrated network of centers of applied research comparable to Germany’s Fraunhofers. In Germany, the network of Fraunhofer institutes possesses extensive competencies and infrastructure relevant to flexible electronics that are being deployed to facilitate the commercialization of flexible electronics products. For a description of the role of a Fraunhofer Institute in advancing flexible electronics, see the summary of the presentation by Dr. Christian May, “Organic and Flexible Electronics in Germany—A Snapshot,” in National Research Council, Flexible Electronics for Security, Manufacturing, and Growth. For a detailed description of the Fraunhofer system, see Appendix A2, “Fraunhofer Gesellschaft: The German Model of Applied Research,” in National Research Council, 21st Century Manufacturing, The Role of the MEP Program (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2013).
- Focus on processes: These centers should be designated to develop manufacturing processes with applications in flexible electronics, such as roll-to-roll production and processing of deposition of electronic materials on plastic substrates at low temperatures.28
D. Where possible, federal efforts to support the growth of competitive flexible electronics industries should leverage state and regional developmental efforts with the objective of establishing co-located local supply chains and capturing the associated cluster synergies.
- Leverage regional initiatives: Any effort at the federal level to foster an indigenous manufacturing base in flexible electronics should seek to reinforce and build upon state and regional initiatives or engage state cost-sharing to build local intellectual and manufacturing infrastructure.
- Focus on small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs): Funding to support prototyping capabilities to help new and incumbent local small- and medium-sized companies launch new products should be given a priority.29
E. Agency mission needs should help drive demand for flexible electronics technologies, while lowering costs, improving capabilities, and contributing to the development of a skilled workforce.30
- Market pull: The uncertainties surrounding “market pull” for emerging flexible electronics technologies remain a significant hurdle to the establishment of U.S.-based manufacturing capability for these technologies. Government procurement historically has given impetus to the commercialization of promising innovations (as the “lead user”), providing an initial revenue stream and the ability to achieve learning economies that make broader commercialization feasible.31
28 As the NNMI is envisioned, each institute will “integrate capabilities and facilities required to address cross-cutting manufacturing challenges that have the potential to retain or expand industrial production in the U.S. on an economically rational basis.” Testimony of Patrick D. Gallagher, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology, before the House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, Committee on Science, Space and Technology, May 31, 2012, 6.
29 Interview with Dr. Miko Cakmak, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio, June 4, 2013. Dr. Cakmak led the committee on a tour of the University of Akron National Polymer Innovation Center. The Department of Commerce Economic Development Agency has been providing support to “Proof of Concept Centers” to promote commercialization of green technologies. These centers feature prototyping design and development facilities and equipment. See National Research Council, Best Practices in State and Regional Innovation Initiatives, 95–98.
30 See Finding C on military and civilian needs in flexible electronics.
31 Stuart W. Leslie, “The Biggest Angel of All: The Military and the Making of Silicon Valley,” in Understanding Silicon Valley: The Anatomy of an Entrepreneurial Region, ed. Martin Kenney (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000); Vernon W. Ruttan, “Will Government Programs Spur the Next Breakthrough?” Issues in Science and Technology, Winter, 2006; Jakob Edler and Luke Georghiou, “Public Procurement and Innovation—Resurrecting the Demand Side,” Research Policy, 2007.
- Procurement opportunities: Promising examples of flexible electronics applications in the United States are arising from the U.S. Army’s need for flexible displays for use by U.S. troops.32
- Consumer applications: The vast range of potential applications for flexible electronics technologies suggests that public procurement opportunities exist not only for the military, but also for products in fields such as health care, power generation, environmental protection, and transportation. While ultimately the competitiveness of the U.S. industry will depend on the innovative capabilities of U.S.-based firms, cooperation across industry, universities, and national laboratories can play a key role in the development of new flexible electronic technologies and applications. Such progress is unlikely to be achieved to the same degree by individual U.S. firms.
32 See the summary description in Chapter 7 of this report of the Flexible Display Center. The FDC is a research and innovation center focusing on the commercialization of flexible displays formed through a collaboration between the U.S. Army and Arizona State University.