24 February 2009—Just down the road from Advanced Micro Devices’ gigantic US $2.5 billion ”Fab 36” CPU plant, a more modest facility is prototyping a revolutionary breed of plastic electronics. Comparatively cheap and low-power polymer-based transistors may someday drive computing applications such as animated product packaging and ”smart” signs, appliances, and clothes.
More imminently, though, Plastic Logic, a company based in Cambridge, England, is hard at work on what it hopes will be a breakthrough 7-millimeter-thick electronic book, magazine, newspaper, and document reader. Now slated for commercial release next year, the Plastic Logic Reader will read popular document formats, including PDF, EPUB, and Adobe’s DRM/eBook, and will feature content from such sources as Ingram Digital, LibreDigital, and the Financial Times .
Unlike other E Ink document readers, such as the Amazon Kindle, however, the transistors on the electronic backplane that switches each of the Plastic Logic Reader’s millions of pixels on and off is a pliable organic polymer, not brittle silicon.
Earlier this month, Plastic Logic opened its $100 million, 4000-square-meter automated-manufacturing clean room to IEEE Spectrum for a peek into the future of flexible electronics. In his corner office at the Dresden facility, Konrad Herre, Plastic Logic’s vice president of manufacturing, gave a simple demonstration highlighting one benefit of plastic electronics.
”You easily can do this,” he says as he smashes his fist onto the Reader’s 22-by-28-centimeter flexible screen and backplane, bashing it with a force that would shatter any liquid-crystal display or slice of silicon. ”It doesn’t break, although it’s a big display.”
Because these robust electronics are mostly printed or sprayed on, rather than etched using expensive photolithography systems, Herre says that organic transistors on plastic can be made more simply and therefore more cheaply than complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) transistors.
In the process being prototyped now in Dresden, a Plastic Logic Reader begins its life on a carefully cleaned sheet of glass. The bay-window-sized ”motherglass” serves as the platter onto which the electronic nerves of nine separate Readers are inked.
Perhaps most immediately conspicuous about Plastic Logic’s clean room is the fleet of boxy automatic guided vehicles (AGVs)—robots that lead each motherglass through some 55 of the approximately 80 steps it takes to make the Reader’s display module. Each AGV serves as the robotic shepherd that brings its batch of motherglass from automated station to automated station. And whenever the AGVs are in motion—down ”the Autobahn,” as the workers call the clean room’s main drag—the robots play bleepy melodies that warn workers to stand clear. (The dozen or more people inside the clean room at any given time monitor the automated manufacturing processes and inspect the product as each layer of electronics is printed on.)