Silicon Fen goes plastic

This is a revised version of an article published earlier this year in +Plastic Electronics.

Cambridge is a strong force in high-tech R&D, so what new opportunities for printed electronics lie ahead?

Silicon Fen, otherwise known as the Cambridge Cluster, is home to many high-technology companies and research initiatives in electronics, software engineering and biotechnology. In 2004, 24% of all venture capital investment in the UK and 9% in Europe as a whole was received by Cambridge companies, according to a report produced in 2007 for the business intelligence consultancy Library House.

Cambridge divB Building (photo: University of Cambridge)

Cambridge is one of the UK’s premier engineering and physical science research centres. Most of the university’s research into organic electronics is under the auspices of the Cavendish Laboratory (i.e., physics department) and the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Electronics (CAPE). The latter was established in 2004 by the university’s electrical engineering department together with four industrial partners: ALPS Electric, Dow Corning, Marconi Comms and Advance Nanotech.

Research activities within CAPE are funded entirely by industry, with private investment used to pay the salaries of contract research staff and PhD students. The university is responsible for building and other infrastructure.

Of the original CAPE partners, only ALPS Electric and Dow Corning remain. Marconi was taken over by Ericsson, which has no R&D interests in the UK. Advance Nanotech recently pulled out of CAPE and a number of other UK-based research collaborations, for reasons that no-one is willing to discuss on-record. Since then the German optics firm Carl Zeiss SMT has joined the consortium, and is contributing its considerable expertise in electron beam imaging.

Professor Bill Crossland (photo: University of Cambridge)

Bill Crossland, professor of engineering at the University of Cambridge, and chairman of the CAPE steering committee, describes the organisation as a closed partnership in which the university works closely with a small number of large companies that are geographically global and have a broad oversight of the electronics market. “It has some of its origins in the telecoms collapse, and the fact that both the academic and the industrial guys were left with predictions being a little scattered to the four winds.”

CAPE’s industrial partners operate across the supply chain of the photonics and electronics industries. Their business interests are somewhat orthogonal, and they can therefore collaborate at a strategic level. Crossland refers to it as being a bit like a joint development agreement. “It certainly relies on a lot of trust between the companies and the university,” he says.

In this respect CAPE is very different from the Cambridge Integrated Knowledge Centre (CIKC), formed by CAPE and the Cavendish Laboratory, and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The CIKC brings together research activities in molecular and macromolecular materials, and draws heavily on the expertise of the university’s Judge Business School.

CAPE is an open arrangement that draws in as many companies as possible, and its industrial partners are all part of the CIKC. Other well-known members of the consortium include Plastic Logic, Cambridge Display Technology (CDT), Merck, DuPont Teijin Films, the Carbon Trust, Nissan, British Telecom, Unilever and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA).

The CIKC is essentially an outreach organisation, and all intellectual property within it is ring-fenced around the research projects. Crossland says that this is essential as the partners could be competing with each other.

Professor Henning Sirringhaus (photo: University of Cambridge)

But the CIKC is about more than technology development, says Henning Sirringhaus, a physics professor in the Cavendish Laboratory, and co-founder and chief scientist of flexible display manufacturer Plastic Logic. “There is also the more general commercialisation activities that are going on,” he says. “In the Judge Business School they have people interested in studying the commercialisation process in detail. EPSRC sees the CIKC as an experiment to improve the commercial relevance of the research that it funds.”

Cambridge university scientists and engineers have over the years developed many materials and technologies that have yet to find their way into commercial environments. “Under the CIKC we are trying to turn these into something that can be manufactured,” says Sirringhaus. “We have worked on n-type, p-type, CMOS-like transistors, and new architectures for devices. Under the CIKC we are trying to bridge the gap between basic science and what industry would consider exploitable.”

The Cambridge work in plastic electronics has “many different legs”, according to Sirringhaus, who adds that the three most important of these are CDT’s work on polymer light-emitting diodes, flexible display developments at Plastic Logic, and the university’s work with organic semiconductors. The CIKC sits in-between the various projects, acting as an interface between the university and industry.

CDT has its research and development based in Cambridge, with a prototyping facility in nearby Godmanchester. The company has interacted with the university over many years, and Cavendish physicist Richard Friend, who with Sirringhaus co-founded Plastic Logic, was one of the founders of CDT. Last year the firm was acquired by the Sumitomo Chemical, which has said it remains committed to Cambridge.

One particular plastic electronics technology being pursued by Cambridge researchers is the so-called Advanced Photovoltaic Research Accelerator. This is a Carbon Trust initiative aimed at delivering breakthrough reductions in the cost of solar energy generation through the use of roll-to-roll processing of organic polymer-based photovoltaics, the deposition of inorganic thin films on flexible substrates, and photovoltaic coatings for rolled steel cladding and roofing products.

One of the hybrid organic-inorganic technologies being developed through the CIKC is concerned with transparent conductors for plastic displays. “There is a special interest in low-temperature deposition of conductors and semiconductors onto plastic,” says Crossland. “One of the bright hopes in that area is zinc oxide.”

Sirringhaus refers to CDT, but his personal commercial affiliation is Plastic Logic, a company that has received a fair amount of media attention in recent times. But unlike the Philips spin-off Polymer Vision, with which it is often compared, Plastic Logic is concentrating on fabricating flexible display panels for other companies, rather than producing consumer electronics products.

Plastic Logic recently completed the building of a €65 million fabrication plant in Dresden, the centre of Germany’s high-tech cluster. Continuing with the Silicon Valley/Silicon Fen theme, one could refer to Dresden as “Silikonwiese”, or Silicon Meadow, after the Elbewiese feature which forms a major part of the city’s physical geography.

While it intends to produce its products in Germany, Plastic Logic has its headquarters in Cambridge, and the company has retained all its R&D activities in and around the town. For example, there is a prototyping line in the local science park where Plastic Logic continues to develop its flexible display capabilities. These are now being transferred to production in Dresden.

“It’s very encouraging to see that plastic electronics is finding its way into the marketplace,” says Sirringhaus. “Plastic Logic is quite close to launching its first products. We’ve not announced publicly when there will be a product, and what that produce will be. But the Dresden facility was completed on time, a few weeks ago. At the moment the equipment is being moved in, and the first production runs will start in a couple of months. Then the company will announce what we’re actually going to make.”

There has been some criticism of Plastic Logic’s decision to site its factory in Dresden, but Sirringhaus is clear in his justification for the move. “It was never contemplated that we would build a manufacturing facility in Cambridge,” he says. “If you want to manufacture you need skills in manufacturing, not skills in research and development. There was no existing manufacturing industry in the Cambridge region, whereas in Dresden you have the big fabs – AMD, Infineon, etc. – who have a lot of manufacturing expertise and a lot of skilled people.”

Sirringhaus talks of a good working relationship between Plastic Logic and the other Dresden-based manufacturers: “In Dresden there is quite a good microelectronics cluster, and it is understood that people change positions. Everybody benefits from a pool of skilled technical staff. That’s something you just wouldn’t have in Cambridge.” For Sirringhaus the most important thing is that the plant has been built in Europe.

One of the more recent commercial initiatives to emerge from the Cambridge Cluster is notable for its focus on leveraging established production processes for the plastic electronics age, rather than developing whole new manufacturing paradigms.

Novalia's electronics printing press (photo: Novalia Ltd)

Novalia is a company founded three years ago by Cambridge engineer Kate Stone to develop applications and processes in the area of printed electronics. Stone worked for a few years with Plastic Logic before leaving with the company’s blessing to pursue her own ideas. Her aim is to enable print companies, designers and brand owners to add value to their products through the use of printed electronics using conventional printing processes.

For her venture Stone received backing in the form of grants from the Department for Trade and Industry (now known as the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), and £400k from Solon Ventures. So far Novalia is a very small-scale concern, with just two staff and occasional input from research students. Stone anticipates the company introducing its first products later this year.

“Printed electronics is a disruptive technology,” says Stone. “The business model we are adopting seeks to minimise disruption to the existing chain of companies in the printing industry. There is an element of risk to this as it is potentially more difficult to secure a position compared with, for example, vertical integration.”

For Novalia, the use of existing processes and materials is much less of a risk than the approach being taken by Plastic Logic. “We look at printing processes (mainly conventional, screen, offset, flexo), and how the use of conductive inks and the addition of conventional electronics can be used in combination to add value to products,” says Stone. “The challenge of organic electronics, and particularly at a company like Plastic Logic, is that it is based on a new product. Novalia’s model is to focus on what we are best at, which is developing a capability that can be enabled through the use of conductive inks with conventional printing.”

According to Stone, Novalia has no desire to become a major manufacturer of electronic devices. The company will instead concentrate on providing an engineering service to printing companies that adds value to their product lines. “I have discovered just how many processes there are in the printing industry, how many parallels there are to those used in electronics, and how resourceful printers can be,” says Stone. “Printing is all about communication, but the dialogue is all one way. In many ways printed electronics can enable this dialogue to be two-way, and we believe there is the potential for a revolution in communication through printed media.”

There are numerous other examples of Cambridge electronics research being turned into viable commercial technologies. And behind many of them is the guiding hand of forums and facilitators such as CAPE and the CIKC.

“We share the optimism about what’s going to happen, and what’s starting to happen in plastic displays,” says Crossland. “A lot of us here have spent our working lives in displays when the massive manufacturing investment was only being made in the Far East. To see a chink appearing in that situation is very exciting.”

We talk about plastic electronics, but Cambridge engineers have a vision that is wider than this particular technology. Companies such as Plastic Logic and Novalia will focus on specific markets, but the same individuals who are pursuing these commercial dreams are looking at what could come next. For example, in university laboratories they are working not only on organic electronics, but also inorganic materials such as semiconductors and transparent conductors for use with plastic substrates.

Crossland identifies a third possibility: “In some sectors of the display market there may be a serious window of opportunity for displays that don’t need active matrices at all. There are some possibilities for passive multiplexing of large display structures, and we are active across all these areas. We have two large groups concerned with the materials and optics of liquid crystal devices, and the way that technology is going to be modified as a result of plastic displays.”

As for CAPE and the CIKC, these bodies are governed by agreements that must be re-negotiated and further developed. CAPE, for example, is coming to the end of its first five-year term, and Crossland and his colleagues are looking to the future: “A lot of the activity is now looking forward to the way we wish to go in the second period of CAPE, starting in 2009.”

The industrial partners and research council that fund CAPE and the CIKC will no doubt be analysing in detail what they have learned from the experience so far. The EPSRC in particular is keen to assess the viability of the integrated knowledge centre model. If it decides that the CIKC and a similar body based around Cranfield University have been successful, the research council may then extend the model to other regions and technologies.