October 29, 2003

Flexible Display Screens

The method could speed the development of wall-size TVs and new forms of flexible screens

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Xerox claims chip innovation
It uses inkjet printer to draw tiny electronic circuits cheaply.

By Richard Mullins

(October 29, 2003) Xerox Corp. researchers say they have discovered a radically cheaper way to make microchips, using a modified inkjet printer to literally draw the tiny circuits for electronics.

Researchers say the method could speed the development of wall-size TVs and new forms of flexible screens and could potentially make electronics cheap enough to embed in everyday products.

We are gunning very much for the display market, said Raj Apte, a researcher at Xeroxs Palo Alto Research Center in California.

We may be creating a business here. Or we may be creating a machine that Xerox can sell to other companies.

For Xerox, the innovation could prove lucrative. It gives the company which is working to turn more inventions from its labs into money-making products entry into the fast-growing market of electronic displays.

The methods biggest breakthrough, Apte said, is the low cost and simple process.

Typically, manufacturing plants that produce laptop computer screens or cell phone screens cost a billion dollars or more to build because they require sterile clean rooms and massive equipment to etch tiny circuits onto high-quality glass.

But last year, Beng Ong, a Xerox researcher in Toronto, discovered a way to make a form of plastic ink that conducts electricity. During a conference in Boston, he theorized that everyday printers could draw circuits with the ink, even on flexible surfaces.

Xerox researchers in California then took the next step to build the printers.

We took a Xerox inkjet print head out of the box and used it to squirt the semiconductor right onto a surface, said Apte. Tiny cameras inside the machine made sure the droplets of ink landed in the correct pattern, he said, a key step in printing on flexible plastic or paper.

By making several passes, the inkjet printer can lay down different circuits, creating a tiny, flat computer but with ink that flexes rather than breaks when the surface is rolled.

Those sheets of plastic could form the electronic brains behind display screens, turning a tiny light on or off to form an image.

Without making a formal prediction, Apte said the process could cut the cost of making electronics by an order of magnitude.

New technologies for electronic display screens are about to become a big business. Analysts estimate that next-generation screens built with organic materials that give off their own light a method pioneered by Eastman Kodak Co. will generate $3 billion in sales by 2007.

Yet the new approach hasnt exactly washed over consumers yet.

Only one digital camera using Kodaks display technology has reached the market; other products, such as cell phones, are expected within the next 12 months. Kodak in September backed away from previous predictions that it would earn $500 million in revenue from display screens within the next two years.

Still, display technology remains critically important. Kodak indicates it will seek to enter the flexible display screen business, where screens are manufactured on plastic or other flexible materials, at some point in the future.

I expect we could encounter this technology in everyday life, said Carl Schauffele, associate director of the Center for Electronic Imaging Systems, located at the University of Rochester. I see flexible displays on items that wouldnt be possible now because of the cost.

Maybe you touch a button and your refrigerator door shows an image of whats inside before you open it.

Apte said Xerox is already considering ways to turn the invention into a marketable product.

In the first step, Xerox plans to use the printed circuits to control the screens made by an existing Xerox spin-off called Gyricon, which markets a form of smart paper that can change its own image.

In the future, Xerox researchers think the process also could cut the cost of making tiny electronics that dont necessarily need high-powered microchips, such as small transmitters on grocery products.

Several large retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., hope to use such transmitters on everything from cereal boxes to toothbrushes, potentially surpassing the bar codes scanned in checkout lanes.

Xerox is working on the technology with teams of researchers at Motorola Labs and Dow Chemical, under a grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Right now, Im feeling pretty optimistic, Apte said. So Im thinking about displays that come down from your bedroom ceiling and roll back up. That could be as few as five years away.

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Includes reporting by staff writer Ben Rand.

Posted by Craig at October 29, 2003 04:33 PM