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Two years ago, the hot topic at Printed Electronics in Dresden was colour displays. But since then, Sony has beaten a hasty retreat and it’s taken longer to get to commercial monochrome printed or plastic displays than people had hoped in 2008. This year, the emphasis is on the definitely less sexy end of the business. Smart labels and packaging; low-end stuff that barely needs any circuitry at all.

Even in displays, some companies are now looking at a way to cut the cost of making existing types of screen, such as liquid-crystal display (LCDs) rather than trying to open up a market for organic LED screens, especially now that Sony has retired hurt - although Peter Harrop, chairman of IDTechEx, the company that organises the conference, reckons they will be back with updated versions at some stage.

Sharp is seriously looking at a way of using printing to replace lithography in the manufacture of its LCDs. According to Tolis Voutsas, director of the materials and devices applications lab at Sharp Laboratories of America, the company could knock 60 per cent out of the cost of making some LCDs simply by “abolishing lithography”, once printed transistors get to the necessary level of performance.

When Swiss startup Innovative Silicon first got going, the company argued that its memory technology could be the thing that drives people towards silicon-on-insulator (SOI) wafers. Despite a strong push by companies such as AMD and IBM, SOI remains a minority choice. All the rest of the action is on bulk silicon wafers.

Following a shift from trying to license its one-transistor memory technology for use alongside logic transistors on system-on-chip (SoC) devices - AMD was the first major licensee — ISi decided a year or two ago that it had a better chance of getting DRAM makers to adopt it before trying to tackle the embedded-memory market again some time in the future.

The DRAM makers have had to come up with increasingly exotic ways to squeeze the bit-storage capacitor into tighter and tighter spaces. ISi is betting that one day real soon now, space is going to win that battle.

By storing a much smaller charge in the body of a transistor, ISi’s Z-RAM could potentially save space — you only have to have a 1T cell, not a 1T-1C cell as with conventional DRAM. But DRAM makers are not in a hurry to move to SOI — they like their wafers to be cheap.

So, ISi has moved in the other direction: away from SOI and into bulk silicon.

crolles-cleanroom.jpgSTMicrolectronics has recruited US-based EDA company Mentor Graphics to a French R&D programme as part of a plan to have processes down to 20nm running at Crolles by the time the programme finishes in three years.

The Nano2012 programme originally included just ST and its fab at Crolles and the CEA-Leti research institute based nearby in Grenoble. But, with ST having joined the IBM alliance of companies developing sub-45nm processes, the Nano2012 programme has become more international in scope. IBM joined the team with Dutch lithography equipment maker ASML also opting to become part of the programme.

On the conference call to discuss the deal, Mentor president Greg Hinckley was keen to stress the company’s French credentials. The EDA vendor has more than 100 engineers based in the country and will recruit a further 20 to work on the DeCADE project that forms part of the Nano2012 programme. But the deal means a bit more than R&D jobs in France.

The project will include the development of a 28nm chip within two years that will be made at Crolles. By joining the programme, Hinckley said Mentor will have unprecedented access to real-world issues in design with advanced processes. It provides “an opportunity to try out ideas and algorithms”, Hinckley said. “Mentor will be able to immediately validate EDA techniques for 28nm and below and critical, adjacent technologies such as mixed-signal, RF and 3D packaging.”