Revolutionary technology, Dr Alec Reader Innos discusses polymer electronics as a possible successor to silicon.
Processing Polymer Electronics: Shaping The Skill Base
The semiconductor industry as a whole is on the periphery of a plastic (or organic, polymer) electronics revolution. For dozens of years, the most widely used standard base material for semiconductor devices, such as integrated circuits and discrete devices, has been silicon. However, its physical limitations means attention is focusing on more flexible materials, specifically semiconducting polymers. Dr Alec Reader, Business Development Director, Innos discusses the potentials of polymer electronics.
News of industry, academic institutions and individuals taking advantage of the benefits of polymer electronics and developing its end uses have been emerging over the past few months. It is my firm belief that within the next five to six years we will be replacing things that silicon used to do with polymer electronics. However, it is a fledgling industry with few real experts within the field. With this in mind, fabricators face the challenge of learning, evolving and developing the workforce and skill sets required, to meet this seemingly limitless potential.
Silicon vs. Polymer
Silicon processing and fabrication is a mature, competitive industry and benefits of the material's use include ease of access, size and power dissipation. Despite these beneficial properties, end applications and consumer demand are requiring cheaper, more flexible components and devices. Since silicon is solid, this severely limits its applications in many consumer technologies. Polymer electronics is typically extremely, physically flexible and cheap to use thus offering a much wider range of applications than silicon. Potential end applications can seem as whimsical as a fold-away laptop or paper-thin plastic newspapers that update themselves automatically, through to ideas already well on their way to the shelves, such as mobile phone displays that can roll up to the size of a pencil.
Subsequently the pilot-line fabs that the world's electronics innovators are continually calling for are facing demand for polymer electronics fabrication. These pilot-line companies act as a ‘bridge' between the designer and the mass manufacturer, developing prototypes and small volume unit production cycles before the matured device is transferred into Asian fabs. This of course reduces cost for the innovator, risk and the likelihood of re-runs as prototypes fail and cycles begin again.
Due to the maturity of silicon, processing silicon-based electronic components require a number of standard techniques and reiterative steps. These ‘building blocks' for processing, known as standard cells and processing steps are quickly put together to create a fully-fledged system, allowing the processing to be performed anywhere in the world by relatively low skilled staff in processing lines. The polymer electronics industry in terms of processing methodology is still at a very early, ‘out of the garage' phase. In fact I would estimate that it is at the same stage silicon processing was 25 years ago.
Today no large scale manufacturing of polymer electronics exists, so every organisation involved in the fabrication of polymer electronics will have its own building blocks - there are no standard cells and processes. As with silicon all those years ago, at this early stage a large amount of intellectual capability is required to determine the first processing steps. However, despite the longevity of silicon processing over polymer, all evidence suggests that the processing of polymer electronics is potentially much lower cost when compared to silicon processing and therefore represents a lower cost to manufacture.
Thinking outside the box can effectively help reduce staff training costs and related risks. As operatives run traditional fabs they can perform the processes. However there are limitations in the skill sets available and also to the added value of the end product. A pilot-line fab managed by experienced teams of innovators stand a better chance of being able to meet the growing polymer electronics demand. By offering high-added intellectual value to designers, these innovative companies contribute a serious competitive advantage in what will eventually become the norm for the industry.
Creating Valuable IP
Those individuals who have earned PhDs add another facet to the model; they are lateral thinkers; intrinsically they get around problems in new and innovative ways. Teams of engineers of this calibre may not seem the first choice in putting to work within a fab, but this is much more than vanilla processing! A by-product of such an approach is a better chance of creating valuable IP; consequently the risk in not being able to retain an engineer's interest in the work is significantly reduced. In fabricating polymer electronics, where so much is still to be learned, the skill sets can be shaped to fit the required criteria of a project. Transferring existing knowledge of silicon into new moulds can speed up the learning curve and create an advantage from the first batch to the last, when the device is ready for mass production.