April 10, 2011

Flexible plastic screens edge closer to commercialization as Army, tech manufacturers collaborate with ASU

A plastic screen that rolls up and doesn't crack when you drop it may sound like science fiction, but the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University is investing millions to liberate electronic devices from the constraints of rigid glass.

And reality could come sooner than you think.

The project was initiated by the U.S. Army in cooperation with a number of companies, including Boeing and Hewlett-Packard, to expedite the development of the technology.

"Flexible ... black-and-white screens for e-readers are very close to commercialization," said Nick Colaneri, Flexible Display Center director. Black-and-white screens are less complicated to create, and he estimates flexible screens capable of rolling up and displaying color images are three to five years away.

Manufacturers see vast potential for consumer applications. DisplaySearch, an industry research company, says the market for flexible screens will likely surpass $1 billion this year and reach $8.2 billion by 2018.

From the beginning, the project has been pushed along by the U.S. military, which is interested in flexible screens for their portability, durability and miserly use of power.

The military, high-tech manufacturers and academia have made Arizona ground zero for bringing the technology into mainstream use. They are pinpointing key materials and testing manufacturing techniques needed to make the sophisticated screens at the Flexible Display Center.

Colaneri, who has been director of the project for two years, said about $90 million has been spent on the project since the center was launched in 2004 under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Army, and about $10 million more will be needed for completion.

Projects of this scale generally take at least 25 years to complete, Colaneri said. Even though flexible screens face manufacturing hurdles, because many companies have come together to collaborate, the process has been streamlined.

Carl Taussig, director of the information-surfaces lab at HP Labs, said, "If you can do it all yourself, it would be ideal. In practice, the risk-reward tradeoff does favor mitigation of the risk by defraying costs and tasks to partners. This also speeds the development, which is an increasingly important aspect in today's marketplace."

The development of color screens is highly coveted, because black-and-white screens typically show less detail.

Jennifer Colegrove, DisplaySearch vice president, believes the technology will be widely adopted, especially once it is available in color.

Because one of its hallmarks is its light weight, Colegrove believes the technology will find its greatest value in devices such as smartphones, tablet computers and laptops.

"It will not have a huge market share in TVs and computer monitors," she said.

HP recently demonstrated a lightweight wristwatch designed for soldiers in the field to view digital maps and other data on a flexible plastic screen that won't shatter or crack. The device uses E Ink front-plane technology, which is used in digital book readers like the Kindle and has better visibility in sunlight. It does not consume a lot of energy and requires no power to hold an image. And the screen is flexible enough that it can be sewn to fabric.

Taussig said HP also has been considering uses for the technology and ways to market it.

"We started thinking about all kinds of commercial applications for this military demonstrator," he said. "There are many uses for an inexpensive, super-lightweight, mechanically rugged hands-free display. Think about all the people that need to have their hands free but could use simple maps, schematics or other instructions available."

He said the technology would be particularly useful to first responders.

Armband displays for the military could be widely used in the not-too-distant future

Colaneri said the complex nature of the project has demanded collaboration. One of the problems has been to find adequate ways to seal the screens to prevent them from degrading.

"The organic molecules we use are very sensitive to oxygen and moisture," he said. "Plastic is like a huge open netting, and oxygen and moisture just pass right through it."

Finding ways of attaching the electronics has also proven to be a problem because the electronics are too hot and melt the screen.

A major challenge has been figuring out how to avoid damaging the plastic during manufacturing because existing equipment is made to handle glass.

Researchers tried gluing sheets of plastic to glass plates and other hard surfaces and running the plates through traditional machines. But temperature variances caused the plastic to stretch. The center had to research and create a special kind of glue, Colaneri said.

by William D'Urso The Arizona Republic Apr. 10, 2011 12:00 AM

Flexible plastic screens edge closer to commercialization as Army, tech manufacturers collaborate with ASU

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