Plastic surgery

Companies and universities are being encouraged to create models of plastic electronic technologies as part of the LACE project. Berenice Baker reports.

PETEC, the UK’s national Printable Electronic Technology Centre, is launching a project that will allow small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to develop prototype plastic electronic technologies using a customisable development line.

County Durham-based PETEC is part of the Centre for Process Innovation, which aims to stimulate business activity in the north east of England through market-driven innovation.

The centre specialises in organic thin-film transistors and offers a development line so that companies can scale up the development of transistor circuitry arrays. Typical examples are transistor-back planes for displays and the transistors and other electronic circuitry associated with electronic products.

PETEC’s novel Large Area Coating Equipment (LACE) project will broaden its technology into related areas of printed electronics, allowing customers to use a new development line to make OLED solid-state lighting products and potentially wide-area photovoltaic products. The project was recently awarded £2m of funding from the European Regional Development Fund.

Dr Tom Taylor, the centre’s director, said: ‘Our model for accelerating the development and commercialisation of new technologies is to try and de-risk the commercialisation step for companies. We do that by providing capital equipment on an open-access or paid-for-access basis and that offsets the need in early-stage work for customers to invest in specialist equipment to try out new technology. PETEC has experts in the fields and relevant equipment so companies can evaluate the development and scale-up of the technology.’

A company or university will call on PETEC after it has demonstrated technology on a small scale in the laboratory. The facilities allow them to develop a scalable economic process to manufacture prototype products and develop a cost-effective manufacturing route.

To construct a custom line for a business, PETEC offers a large selection of equipment, which, in the most part, is off the shelf, but some that are unique and some that do not exist at that particular scale elsewhere in the UK. These can be put together ‘Lego style’ in different orders to suit the product being made, allowing the client to demonstrate it on a meaningful scale, to gather the associated manufacturing cost and efficiency data needed to design a manufacturing process and to make the case for further investment.

‘We’re trying not to go down too narrow a technical path but to have a broad enough base to appeal to a range of UK industries,’ said Taylor. ‘Having equipment that’s available off the shelf means that when companies want to scale up and build their own line, they’re not having to work with completely new technology. So we’ve got metal evaporators and wide-area printing and coating systems that are widely available.’

PETEC has 16 customers working on its existing organic 4in (10cm) and 12in thin-film transistor lines, including two spinouts: PolyPhotonix, which is developing solid-state lighting, and Evince, which is working on a form of semiconductor using novel electronic materials. ‘At the 12in size, you can demonstrate a lighting panel, for example,’ said Taylor. ‘Once you’re in full-scale production, you want a larger area, but, in terms of development, that demonstrates that you can make products at a small production scale, whereas in a university lab you may be working on something that’s just a centimetre square.’

The line to support LACE solid-state lighting and principle photovoltaics has just been announced and will take the best part of a year to get running.

‘The next stage is to do some much bigger and more in-depth products with the customer based on the existing technology,’ said Taylor. ‘We won’t broaden the technology straight away; we’ll get involved with some quite major companies we have in the pipeline to get prototype products and production processes into the marketplace. We’re commissioning a series of product demonstrators to show what the industry’s capable of and getting the companies selling to each other within a supply chain.’

In the longer term, PETEC aims to further develop its facilities to support other technologies, such as sensors, which could use much of the centre’s existing equipment.