Get smart

Paul Boughton

Louise Smyth talks flexible displays, smartwatches and wearable electronics with an expert in intelligent semi-conductor technology

‘Smart chemistry for next-generation flexible displays.’ That’s the tagline that SmartKem, a UK-based company specialising in semi-conductor technology operates under. Its Tru-Flex product – a semiconductor platform for high-performance flexible electronics – is generating a great deal of interest from those pioneering solutions such as flexible smartphones and smartwatches. The company describes the Tru-Flex  platform as “organic semiconductors  that enable the manufacture of thin-film transistors (TFTs) that combine industry-grade electrical performance with complete physical flexibility for the realisation of ‘foldable’ displays and electronics such as tablets, smartphones and wearable devices, for the first time.”

Flexible displays are currently a huge trend, particularly in the consumer sector as we observe the novelty and indeed popularity of early iterations of the ‘smartwatch’. What SmartKem’s technology enables are end products that are lightweight, unbreakable, flexible and wearable. The benefits that industries such as engineering and manufacturing (and pretty much any sector you can think of that requires display technology) could reap from solutions with those features are immense and obvious.

Keen to take advantage of this trend, SmartKem has recently been very active in a number of areas targeted at reaping the rewards of flexible electronics, with the company sharing news on a number of different fronts. One announcement that’s a source of great pride came back in March 2015, when Tru-Flex was awarded the Innovative Product of the Year at the ESTnet Awards. This follows an earlier acknowledgement, when SmartKem won the Printed Electronics Asia Award 2013 for Best Advanced Material Development. And there’s possibly another award in the pipeline …

From the company’s HQ in St Asaph, Wales, Julian Carter, the firm’s technology manager, reflects on the rapid growth that’s occurred in the space of just months. “2015 has so far been a landmark year for us. Following a major uptake of the Tru-Flex semiconductor technology in Asia, we’ll soon be announcing a further expansion of our leadership team and the formation of a dedicated technology transfer team based permanently in Asia, to ensure the continued delivery of its semiconductor platform against increasing demand. In addition, Tru-Flex has just received international recognition as a finalist in the Materials category of the upcoming 2015 R&D 100 Awards in Las Vegas.”

The commercialisation process

It’s obviously heartening for Carter and his team to see their solutions being acknowledged by their peers, and the demand for this smart semi-conductor technology is undoubtedly rising. But how far along in the commercialisation process are the end products that will ultimately be showcasing this technology? How long will it be before we see bendable, unbreakable mobile phones on the market? To address these issues, Carter turns to the feedback he hears on a regular basis from those players investing in the Tru-Flex technology. He comments: “The display market has recognised the differentiators of our platform; fold, cost and power. We believe that our semiconductors offer the only route to foldable displays, a key value addition in the user experience.

“Furthermore, our ultra-low TFT ‘off currents’ enable mobile and wearable displays that consume less power, up to 90% less than low temperature polysilicon (LTPS) in some instances, offering extended battery life operation. Couple this with the potential for manufacturing at a 50% reduced cost, this offers display makers a ‘perfect storm’ of compelling reasons to adopt.”

So where exactly in the commercialisation process are the end products? Carter reveals: “We are currently at the pre-production and pilot line stage, and market entry points being targeted for Tru-Flex are foldable mobile devices and fully conformal, smartwatches; both applications offering unbreakable displays with extended battery life."

From consumer to industry

This semiconductor technology and the applications it enables are undoubtedly game-changing on a broad scale, particularly in the consumer sector. But what sort of impact could the technology have on the engineering sector? The immediate advantage would be in enabling design engineers in a number of industry areas to have far greater freedom - literally making things more ‘flexible’ for them with regard to the type of solutions it will now be possible to design. But how else does Carter predict the sector can take advantage of this technology? “We, and many product design companies, believe flexible displays will change everything,” he begins. “As we move towards the age of Big Data, the cloud and the Internet of Things, the ease by which people see, touch and offer data will become increasingly important. Our platform technology, although initially being adopted for driving flexible displays, also has significant traction in the arena of touch- and sensor- based applications. 

“Having such a versatile electronic platform that is unbreakable, highly conformal, lightweight and low power opens the door to a new world of applications; whether it be consumer, industrial or automotive. Being able to wear or carry technology with complete comfort or to embed displays, touchscreens or sensors into nearly any conceivable space, shape or surface offers a glimpse into an intriguing world of new product opportunity.”