An initiative to coordinate the UK's technology development centre network aims to build a national plastic electronics economy.
The UK's enviable record for original research into breakthrough technologies, including plastic electronics, has often failed to translate into lucrative commercialisation, at least as far as the British economy is concerned.
Cambridge Display Technology (CDT), a pioneer in polymer-based organic electroluminescence, attempted to develop technology from patents filed in 1989 by researchers at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University.
After securing its own centre in Godmanchester, UK, the company made strong progress in materials and technology for commercial polymer OLEDs.
Ultimately, however, the company was to be acquired by Japanese chemicals firm Sumitomo in 2007. The deal made CDT a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sumitomo.
The recent news that Plastic Logic will establish manufacturing in Zelenograd, Russia, as part of a $700 million (€517.4 million) deal with Rusnano, underlines the trend for successful UK technology to move abroad to achieve commercial scale-up. Plastic Logic's Zelenograd facility will be its second manufacturing site: the first being in Dresden, Germany, a fertile ground for plastic electronics development.
Donal Bradley, one of the original researchers behind CDT's technology, explains: 'Historically the UK has had a prominent role in this field from the point of view of scientific development, with the likes of CDT and Plastic Logic being major spin-out successes, but it is difficult to translate this into manufacturing activity.
'There is a danger that, having established a strong base, other countries will come along and do a better job of translating the science into products.'
By contrast, the success of countries like Germany in promoting plastic electronics research to commercial use - as companies like organic solar firm Heliatek can attest - shows that there is a successful model for transferring R&D into marketable products.
Development centres like the Fraunhofer institutes, combined with funding from the German government, provide the resources necessary to push plastic electronics innovations to commercialisation.
The UK has its own range of development centres - most notably the Printable Electronics Technology Centre (Petec) (see +Plastic Electronics 1.5, p.50) - but has yet to achieve the impact of IMEC in Belgium, the Holst Centre in the Netherlands, VTT in Finland or Fraunhofer, for instance.
With plastic electronics maturing as an industry and commercial opportunities ripening, the UK is seeking to match the success of such institutes by coordinating its network of technology development centres, in what the UK's Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is calling the Printed Electronics Centres of Excellence (PECoE).
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This article appears in full in Volume 3, issue 4 of +Plastic Electronics magazine, looking at the role of the five centres of excellence in guiding plastic electronics innovations from lab to market.
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