Boris Galkin: “Flexible Electronics Will not only Provide the Impetus for New Applications but also Squeeze Traditional Electronics Into Existing Markets.”
The Russian Center for Flexible Electronics is the first producer of plastic-based microelectronic components in Russia. Boris Galkin, the company’s Development Director, told how to create a flexible screen, how the global market of flexible electronics is developing, and why Russia has excellent prospects in this market.
What is the difference between the electronics we are used to and flexible electronics?
I prefer to use the term “plastic electronics” as it fits better than “flexible” because the flexibility of the end product is not always needed.
Traditional electronics use silicon, while flexible electronics—plastic. Silicon chips are inherently quite fragile, while plastic components are not susceptible to deformation under mechanical influences, making them more adaptable to applications where the integration of traditional electronics is problematic. Other advantages include physical data: components on plastic weigh an order of magnitude less and are several times thinner than their silicon counterparts. Moreover, in several applications with comparable characteristics, plastic electronics are already cheaper than silicon electronics. As the plastic electronics industry develops, the price gap will widen.
What parts of the device can be flexible?
Today, many components can be flexible: screens, sensors, batteries, chips, enclosures, etc. Samsung has already released a smartphone that turns into a tablet by bending and unbending its screen.
Electronics are showing up in previously unimaginable places, such as a touch screen on clothing or medical patches where a sensor is glued on like a band-aid, and the device measures heart rate, blood pressure, or other biometrics. More sophisticated medical sensors, such as X-ray detectors with adaptable curvature, can also be created, making another level of measurement accuracy possible. This is relevant both for medical applications (e.g., a detector wrapped around a patient’s arm) and for nondestructive testing (defectoscopy of pipes).
There are solutions where it’s not flexibility that’s important, but rather a curvature, such as in a car. The screen can be integrated into the control panel or into the side mirror pillar (to the left of the driver’s seat) to display the image from the camera and make the blind spot visible.
Chances in the New Market
Russia cannot be called a successful manufacturer of silicon electronics, what are our chances in the “flexible” industry?
Russia has fallen far behind the world leaders in silicon electronics. This industry is 50 to 60 years old, and it started to develop very late in our country. There is so much money invested in this in the world that it is very difficult to catch up and overtake.
Very recently, less than five years ago, “flexible” electronics, as opposed to silicon electronics, began to develop on an industrial scale. Today we are in the first stages of technology development. Russia was among the countries that had first decided to invest in industrial technology. It is one thing to have laboratory samples, and it is quite another thing to have a technology that makes it possible to produce commercially reproducible products: not a couple of dozen samples, but tens, hundreds of thousands, and mlns of units.
What does the Russian Center for Flexible Electronics do and how did it come into being?
The global market for “flexible” electronics is estimated at USD 41.2 bln as of 2020, and will nearly double to USD 74 bln by 2030.
The Russian Center for Flexible Electronics was launched this year, with the official opening in March 2020, just before the CoVID-19 pandemic began in Russia. The plant’s main product is plastic thin-film transistor arrays. The TFT-matrix is a key component, simply put, the brain (or heart) of many radio electronic components. Such matrices are used to create, for example, LCD or OLED screens for smartphones, X-ray detectors, biometric sensors, chips for RFID tags, and “electronic paper” screens (EPD screens).
Our factory is designed so that it can produce TFT-matrices using two breakthrough global technologies. The first is organic electronics (transfer from the British FlexEnable); the second is the IGZO (indium, gallium, and zinc oxide) metal oxide technology—the transfer from the Belgian IMEC R&D organization). Organic TFT-matrices are used to create EPDs and LCDs, as well as biometric sensors and X-ray detectors, while the IGZO TFTs are used for integrated circuits and OLED screens. Our reliance on two technologies reduces the technological and “business” risks of bringing new technology to market. Moreover, several leading research groups are developing at the intersection of organic and metal-oxide technologies. This can lead to the development of fundamentally new types of products on the horizon of two to three years, which can be mass-produced at our plant. The idea for such a plant came more than five years ago. It took about two years to work out the concept and negotiate with investors.
TechnoSpark has organized the entire range of work on the creation and launch of the plant—from design to technology transfer and start-up of technological equipment, as well as the cooperation of technological partners and negotiations with investors. The main investor was the RUSNANO’s Fund for Infrastructure and Educational Programs with the support of the Moscow Government.
Colleagues and Competitors
Who else in the world produces “flexible” electronics?
There are about five players of different sizes in the world right now that are involved in the production of “flexible” electronics.
We are very happy that after ten years of intensive work, Samsung managed to establish mass production of a bendable OLED screen. Samsung works with low-temperature polysilicon technology, which has several advantages and disadvantages. This is a very capital-intensive technology with an entry threshold of several bln dollars.
There is a plastic electronics company in Britain to produce plastic RFID and NFC tags. They are betting on the creation of RFID tags, which will be several times cheaper than their silicon counterparts. This should open up new market segments, the most significant of which is FMCG products. Integration of such tags into the packaging will make it possible to track the full life cycle of the product, as well as a new level of interaction with customers, for example, recipes for meals or cocktails on your smartphone upon reading an NFC tag.
The company in the USA develops and manufactures X-ray detectors based on the IGZO technology.
The Japanese are also actively moving towards the IGZO technology. They don’t do manufacturing but transfer their technology to industrial players. For example, several years ago, Sharp launched a factory for the production of the IGZO TVs using this technology.
How does the Russian center for “flexible” electronics differ from its global competitors?
Other companies have production technology designed for one type of product. We originally designed the site to be able to quickly adapt to the needs of the market.
TFT-matrices, the plant’s main product, have many applications. We’re starting to work with clients from different segments and will continue to do so for the subsequent two years. When we get to the point where the volume of orders exceeds our production capacity, we will choose the most marginal products and focus on them.
Scope and Prospects
What is the Russian Center for “flexible” electronics doing now, six months after its launch?
We are now completing the transfer of our first technology and shipping small batches of screens on electronic paper. Target applications are electronic price tags, badges, smart cards, and digital signage.
We are currently negotiating the production of electronic price tags with several companies, and if they are successful, next year it will be possible to come into a store and see an electronic price tag with a screen produced by us.
At the same time, we have several R&D projects underway. They aim to create architecture and design for new applications—plastic RFID tags, fingerprint scanners, x-ray detectors, and LCD screens. If successful, each of the R&D leads to a breakthrough. For example, the already mentioned curved LCD screens will perfectly complement the now so popular smart speakers with the body completely wrapped in a screen. This will give a fundamentally different level of interaction with the user.
Will all of your products mainly be exported?
We have technology partners that have long been present in the global market as players in the field of “flexible” electronics. In the UK, it is FlexEnable, an organic electronics company. In continental Europe, there is imec, a Belgian research organization, and Holst Center, its technology subsidiary in the Netherlands. Since they are only engaged in development, production orders will be passed on to us.
80% of the production will be exported
This is primarily exports because the application market abroad is much more progressive than in Russia. This will change over time, but so far, we see much more interest abroad.
What are your production volumes and what are your goals for the coming years?
When we reach full production capacity, we will be able to produce 4,000 square meters of electronics per year. In terms of finished components, it is 1.5 mln screens for electronic price tags or hundreds of mlns of chips for RFID tags. If you count in smartphone screens, that’s about 100,000 screens per year.
We are currently negotiating with several potential clients. There are several large contracts, each of which can take from 10% to 50% of our production volumes.
Next year, we plan to complete the transfer of IGZO technology and go into mass production.