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The future looks flexible

I have seen the future of displays, and it's flexible. It's also rugged, low power, and lightweight. Imagine your TV rolled out flat on the wall, or your car's instrument panel laid out on the dashboard, touch-programmable for look, feel, and function. Your son wears weatherproof laminate screens on the sleeves of his combat fatigues, downloading real-time information on enemy positions or battlefield intelligence from a satellite or command center. The billboards on your way to work or the beach frequently change their graphics and messaging. Your daily newspaper or weekly magazine rolls out of a tube or unfolds out of a packet, the latest events and features transmitted wirelessly and readable in a lush four-color, interactive format.

Although many of these ultimate flexible display (FD) applications are not going to be available this year or for years to come, research efforts and nascent commercial markets have gained traction in the past few months. The recent opening of the Flexible Display Center (FDC) on the Arizona State University (ASU) research campus in Tempe, the establishment of new programs in the United States and elsewhere, and the release of prototype commercial products all signal intensified momentum in the FD realm.

I attended the FDC's ribbon-cutting event in early February, held in conjunction with the opening of EV Group's new North American headquarters inside the facility. (EV Group is FDC's first industrial
tenant.) Sited in what was once Motorola's fab for its ill-fated field-emitter-display unit, the center is jointly funded by the U.S. Army, the state of Arizona, and ASU, along with contributions from other research and industrial collaborators such as Universal Display, E-Ink, Honeywell, Corning, and General Dynamics.

Nearly $44 million will be invested in the FDC over the next five years, with an option for $50 million more over the subsequent five years. When other contributing sources are factored in, the budgetary pot approaches $100 million. R&D efforts will focus on backplane electronics, electro-optics materials and devices, and barriers and substrates. The ultimate goal is to get roll-to-roll tool sets ready for production and make FDs a truly manufacturable technology.

The Army's interest in FDs is a no-brainer—they literally have the potential to "revolutionize on-field command and information exchange." The interest shown in some of the tabletop displays by the uniformed personnel present at the event reminded me of gamers salivating over demos of the latest Xbox or Playstation. But the center's real focus is on commercial applications.

"Our goal is to speed commercialization of flexible displays by keeping development centered on commercial standards," explained David Morton, displays technology manager for the Army Research Lab. "There will be no issues restricting suppliers or the export of technologies." As for intellectual property concerns, he said that "for the partners, the ownership of IP follows invention. What you bring in is yours. The center can use all the IP internally, and if [the center] is a significant contributor, it will have rights too."

The EV Group team is excited about their FDC role and how they'll be able to leverage the fab's shared infrastructure for the company's other R&D activities. As part of the Gen I 150-mm pilot line, it has installed
its spray coating, bonding, and debonding equipment as well as aligners and other miscellaneous support tools in bays covering about 1100 sq ft of the 43,500-sq-ft Class 10 cleanroom facility. More tools will come on-line midyear, according to EVG's North American vp and gm, Steven Dwyer. The company will also develop and test a large-area automated spray coater for the center's Gen II 14.5 X 8.5-in. substrates, scheduled to be operational next year.

Dwyer said that the company can get access to other process and metrology tools across the center's entire fab line to support a wide range of customer applications, including, but not limited to, flexible displays. When asked about how much access they would have in the fab, Dwyer quipped that "we have more wafer starts than we know what to do with."

Certainly, the effort to make flexible displays into viable, manufacturable commercial, industrial, and military products will require untold wafer starts and roll-to-roll runs. Daunting technical challenges remain in the areas of temperature control, defectivity and yield, materials and process integration, packaging, and equipment development. But one day, flexibility will foster a new era of connectivity.

Tom Cheyney

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