Five benefits of flexible electronics for displays and sensors
June 28, 2017
Flexible electronics isn’t a new technology, but it has achieved a remarkable progress over the past years and its importance to other industries has increased. IDTechEx analysts forecast that the total market for printed, flexible and organic electronics will grow from $29.28 billion in 2017 to $73.43 billion in 2027.
But what exactly is flexible electronics and why is it in vogue?
Flexible electronics is a technology that allows you to build electronic circuits on flexible plastic substrates thus making them bendable and stretchable. Flexible electronics enables new product paradigms that aren’t possible with conventional semiconductors and glass substrates. Here I explore some of the attributes of flexible electronics that make it so attractive to product designers and consumers alike.
Transistors can be made from either inorganic or organic materials, or a mix of both. FlexEnable fabricates transistors using organic materials like plastics for its flexible electronics platform. They are inherently flexible and can be wrapped around a matchstick thousands of times without damage. Thanks to this property flexible electronics is considered very promising for achieving foldable and even stretchable devices..
While flexible electronics has many applications including flexible batteries and flexible memory, at FlexEnable we have focused on flexible displays and sensors. We use high-performance organic thin-film transistors on plastic substrates to develop flexible organic LCD (OLCD) and flexible image sensors. Impressively, our OLCD can bend down to 20mm making it suitable for a wide range of applications including automotive, consumer electronics, smart home appliances and digital signage. Our image sensors are equally flexible bringing benefits to biometrics and medical applications.
Light and thin
Using a plastic substrate (instead of glass) in combination with organic transistors helps make the whole stack very thin. For example at FlexEnable we use low-cost plastic substrates such as PET and TAC which are just a fraction of a tenth of a millimetre thick. As a result the entire OLCD we have developed is just 0.3mm thick (without the backlight). Display thickness and weight are especially important features for applications that require large area displays such as automotive and digital signage.
The device thickness and weight matter for sensor applications too. In biometrics there is a trend to move to thin, light-weight and robust fingerprint sensors that can easily be integrated into products and make them more mobile and user-friendly. FlexEnable has developed small and large area flexible fingerprint sensors that are also ultra-thin (0.3mm) and light offering tangible benefits to applications such as smartcards, smartphones, tablets and other consumer electronics.
One property of flexible electronics which deserves to be highlighted is their robustness. This makes a great difference for applications such as wearables, tablets and other consumer electronics which traditionally feature glass-based displays. Incorporating an unbreakable active plastic display could become a unique selling point for consumers.
A major application of FlexEnable’s flexible electronics technology is X-ray detectors for medical and industrial uses. Conventional X-ray detectors use amorphous silicon glass-based technology and are therefore heavy and brittle. Using plastic X-ray image sensors will not only make X-ray detectors more robust, but also lighter and smaller. Integrators will find it easy to replace the brittle amorphous silicon glass-based technology with the flexible organic transistor technology without changes to their system design - the only change to their detector will be the image sensor while the scintillator and read-out electronics will remain the same.
The processes and materials for manufacturing flexible electronics differ, but the aim is to make them lower cost than conventional electronics. Roll to roll printing has been long considered the ultimate approach to the cost-effective manufacture of electronics over large and small areas. It will remove the waste of materials currently incurred in factories and will drive product costs down. However, there are a few steps to overcome before roll to roll printing becomes the norm.
At FlexEnable we have developed a practical approach to the cost-effective manufacture of flexible electronics for flexible displays and sensors. Our processes are compatible with existing flat panel display lines meaning that most of the existing equipment can be reused. A maximum processing temperature below 100°C allows for the use of lower cost plastic substrates (e.g. PET) and minimises distortion (improve yield), whilst enabling a low cost, high yield method of handling flexible substrates (Read our blog post on taking flexible displays from lab to fab).
For brands and designers to keep innovating and developing next generation products, they need tools and components that will enable them to do this. Flexible electronics allow the development of flexible components such as flexible displays and sensors which remove form factor constraints and give designers creative freedom. A typical example is the automotive industry where designers are already thinking outside the box by reinventing the car interior with the help of flexible displays. Car interiors design company, Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, has demonstrated how flexible display technology can help improve visibility and safety by incorporating a conformable OLCD provided by FlexEnable into the A-pillar of their concept car XiM17.
If you are working on a new product that requires flexible displays or sensors, please get in touch with FlexEnable at firstname.lastname@example.org.