In response to a congressional request, the National Research Council’s Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy has examined and compared selected innovation programs, both foreign and domestic, and their potential to advance the production of flexible electronics technology. To augment their extensive knowledge of the industry, the committee convened two workshops to draw on the perspectives of industry leaders, academics, and senior government officials, conducted several site visits, and commissioned research on policies and programs that have been implemented in East Asia, Europe, and the United States.
The analysis summarized in this volume includes a review of the role of research consortia around the world to advance flexible electronics technology. Based on an in-depth understanding of the structure, focus, funding, and likely impact of these programs, the committee has identified several recommendations to develop a robust flexible electronics industry in the United States.
Flexible electronics technologies involve 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, including medical care, packaging, lighting and signage, consumer electronics, and alternative energy (especially solar energy.) What these technologies have in common is a dependence on efficient manufacturing that currently requires improved processes, tooling, and materials, as well as ongoing research. (Finding A)
Seeking to capture the global market in flexible electronics, major U.S. competitors in East Asia and Europe 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 is significantly larger than comparable U.S. investment and more weighted toward later-stage applied research and development. (Finding E)
Significant U.S. expansion in the market for flexible electronics is not likely to occur in the absence of mechanisms to address investment risk, the sharing of intellectual property, and the diverse technology requirements associated with developing and manufacturing flexible electronics technologies. Linking industry, university, and government is a proven means to galvanize industry and promote cooperation in applied research and development. (Finding G)
Accordingly, the committee finds that collaboration among industry, universities, and government offers the best prospect for achieving sufficient levels of investment and the acceleration of new technology development that is required to develop a vibrant flexible electronics industry. (Finding H)
Consistent with the challenges and opportunities outlined in the findings above, the committee recommends the following:
- The United States should increase 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.
- Consortia, bringing together industry, universities, and various levels of government, should be used as a means of fostering precompetitive applied research in flexible electronics.
- The United States should establish and support a network of user facilities dedicated to flexible electronics.
- 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.
- 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.