In today’s fast-paced, connected world, the need for more capable and adaptable technology is strong. Hardware is a key component in many everyday devices and is therefore vital to spawn the next generation of applications, and unlock a new wave of creativity for software and services. However, the next generation of hardware will change the rules not only for apps, but also for the designers of the hardware itself – flexible electronics will change the game for everyone, including the end user.
Flexible displays and sensors have the potential to transform consumer electronic devices more than any other technology breakthrough in the past 30 years – from unbreakable phones and tablets, to genuinely wearable wearables. Already we are starting to see displays that aren’t flat, but curved. For example Samsung’s Galaxy Note Edge features a screen that wraps around the edge of the display, while LG has introduced its first curved smartphone G Flex in 2013 and has followed up with G Flex 2 in 2015. It features a slight curve from top to bottom which arguably makes it easier to fit in your back pocket. Apple’s smartwatch also uses a plastic display – used in part because it’s thinner than its glass equivalent – leaving more room for the battery. However, we are yet to witness a real breakthrough in terms of truly flexible displays that will drive the next big trends in consumer electronics.
Recently, Samsung revealed new concepts for foldable and flexible phones that break existing form factor forms. These and other concepts can be turned into real products with the help of organic electronics. Organic electronics (also known as plastic electronics) refers to the field of electronics that uses carbon-based polymers to create transistors which enable flexible circuits and functionality. It brings unique benefits to products and manufacturing processes that simply aren’t possible with silicon and is arguably the most significant transistor technology advance in several decades. This technology is applied to create flexible backplanes for displays and sensors and the idea is that the processes are compatible with existing manufacturing infrastructures.
Organic electronics facilitates the development of colour video rate displays that are ultra-thin, shatterproof and conformable. A first breakthrough in this area has been achieved by FlexEnable which has demonstrated the world’s first conformal plastic LCD display with partner Merck as well as a flexible OLED display developed in collaboration with Taiwanese display manufacturer CPT.
Of course there are other companies developing organic thin-film transistor (OTFT)-based technologies that will help speed up the progress that’s being made in this area. With the organic electronics market forecast to be worth $69billion by 2026 (according to IDTechEx), the expectations for the opportunities that it will open are high, and they reach far beyond only flexible displays. We can expect to see major applications of flexible electronics in healthcare where it could be used for the development of new X-ray image and pressure sensors which are lighter, more robust and flexible. By 2020 there will be over 3billion wearable sensors in use providing a huge amount of additional data that can be used for health monitoring. Flexible wearable sensors, in particular, can play a major role in monitoring patients 24/7 leading to improved patient services and quality of life of people with health issues.
In the world of the IoT where ever more devices are connected, the ability to bring any and every surface to life with ubiquitous sensing is imperative. Flexible organic electronics can interface with our bodies and the environment that’s surrounding us in many different ways – they can be applied practically almost anywhere, from shoes and clothing to the interior surfaces of our cars.