Plastic dreams

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Hermann HauserIf there was a time for the UK government to launch a strategy to back plastic electronic, three years ago was the time to do it. It seemed a riskier proposition then but it was also the time when Plastic Logic was nearing the end of its search for a location for its first flexible-display fab. Shortly before the company alighted on Dresden in early January, courtesy of a bunch of sweeteners from Silicon Saxony, plastic electronics fan and investor Hermann Hauser (pictured left) delivered to an audience of technology businesspeople in Cambridge his less than stellar opinion of UK regional development authorities (RDAs).

Wales had been a serious contender as a home for the fab, making it the final five among locations in Europe and Asia, but Hauser declared the UK RDAs as being "less than responsive". It was not just about subsidies but the burden of obtaining planning permission. "We are just not thinking strategically," said Hauser at the High Value Manufacturing conference in late 2006.

But at least part of the message sank in. "I feel that the government needs to have a lot more courage to support sectors," Hauser added later in a panel session.

For years, UK government has avoided picking winners in the belief that market forces tend to work better at determining what technologies will take off and which will disappear without trace. But that is changing at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills under Lord Mandelson, who talks of "re-industrialising" Britain after some 30 years of progressive de-industrialisation in favour of a service-led economy. The banking collapse of 2008 did a lot to focus minds on what happens when one large chunk of the service economy turns out to be entirely devoid of value.

Ahead of the launch of the BIS strategy for plastic electronics, Hauser granted an interview to the Financial Times in which he called for a £100m programme to fund development in flexible polymer electronics, a big step up from the £8m of money from the Technology Strategy Board announced today.

The gap between what Hauser wants and what the UK government will fund is not quite as big as it sounds. Of that £8m, some £3m is to go purely on demonstrators intended to encourage businesses to look more seriously at using plastic electronics in the future rather than more conventional R&D. The other £5m is for a programme aimed at filling in some gaps that might otherwise hinder development of a UK-based industry. The TSB claims to have already funded a range of projects.

According to TSB chief executive Iain Gray, the board took part in a £12m project to develop a flexible colour display among some 60 others, ranging from multi-million pound initiatives down to a simple £30 000 feasibility study.

I don't think anyone would turn away Hauser's offer if the money was there but more R&D for better plastic electronics is arguably not the central problem facing the successful development of a UK-based plastic-electronics industry. That remains the perennial problem of developing a self-sustaining infrastructure, which means having a reasonable amount of manufacture. And, in reality, the UK lost round one of that. Plastic Logic is still headquartered in Cambridge but the German location provides Saxony with a foothold for developing a wider infrastructure. The UK suffered a second blow with the collapse of Polymer Vision - its assets ultimately purchased by Taiwan-based Wistron. Polymer Vision bought Southampton-based manufacturer Innos in 2007.

glowcoat.jpgThe problem is making sure the UK does not act simply as a laboratory for stuff that gets made everywhere else, which comes back to Hauser's 2006 gripe: the UK RDAs just aren't functioning well. For one thing, there are too many. It was a structure that was workable in the 1980s when the one thing keeping jobs in some parts of the country was the local RDA's ability to convince overseas manufacturers to set up shop in their neck of the woods. But those days are long past. If it's not China, it's Poland - no-one is really debating whether to go to Tyneside or Merseyside for an assembly plant.

When it comes to technologies such as plastic electronics, manufacturers know roughly where they want to go. Dresden was a good choice for Plastic Logic because a bunch of process engineers already work there. South Wales would have been a good choice for the same reason, thanks to the presence of several fabs there. East Kilbride and Tyneside could well be targets for some other plastic-electronics fabs. But if you get RDAs to slug it out with each other, they are going to miss what some of their better-funded competitors with larger catchment areas elsewhere in Europe or Asia will catch (and with tricks that sail near but don't transgress EU rules on subsidies).

The UK's other problem - the lack of a decent-sized electronics systems maker - is a handicap but not one that government can do much about. This is where things such the £3m competition from the TSB come in. It might sound like a gimmick - just imagine the haute couture dayglo jackets that might result from it as if we didn't have a few already (pictured) - but getting plastic electronics in front of a more general manufacturing base is very important. Thorn Lighting identified this as a major hurdle to organic LED lighting a couple of years ago in a research project the company took part in.

Project Topless had one aim: to develop a more efficient white light-emitting polymer. But another key part, according to Geoff Williams, programme manager at Thorn talking about the project in 2008, was to work out how to get people to use a flat lighting panel instead of bulbs or tubes. Interior design is not a fast-moving business when it comes to technology. "What does the customer want? What is the benefit to them? We have got to think less like technologists," said Williams.

One interesting result from the project was that nobody really wanted a flexible lighting panel. "So we can optimise the printing for solid substrates," Williams argued. And that is the kind of market-driven insight a nascent business like this needs. It's easy to come up with ideas of how you might use a flexible lighting sheet but if no-one in interior design cares, why worry about the cost of developing it?

By focusing on networks, the strategy for plastic electronics has a reasonable chance of working. It may have one further benefit: focusing attention away from big-money projects that sound like a way to propel the UK into the forefront of a technology...that nobody actually wants.

Hauser's declared aim is for plastic electronics to compete with silicon. But as one researcher in memory technology said to me at the International Electron Device Meeting last year: "You never, ever want to bet against silicon."

Plastic electronics is a very good complement to silicon. You want silicon to support things that get smaller and denser. Printed, plastic or polymer electronics are great when you need to cover a large area cheaply - it's the low-cost technology when you can't cut cost simply by using less area. Gradually, performance will improve to the point where it will snatch business away from silicon but it will always be a finely balanced trade-off. And, when you have massive areas to cover in displays, lighting panels, clothes, packaging, why go after silicon on its home turf?

And there is one final reason why the UK is as good a home as any for plastic electronics: personalised fabrication. This is more blue sky but if there is a technology that will make it possible to get functional devices out of a printer in the way that people such as Neil Gershenfield have proposed, polymer technology is the one. Polymer electronics is potentially a very highly distributed enterprise. Food manufacturers will want to print direct onto their own packages, not buy in bits from outside. And that could go all the way down into small businesses doing 'print on-demand' devices to the home. So, the focus would not be so much on plastic electronics production per se but the machines you need to make device printing foolproof. The ink might be a bit pricey, mind.