Tech DeKoded — Bend it like Beckham, and then some

Large Area Flexible Electronics. Source: IMEC

Imagine reading your daily newspaper on a paper-thin tablet. And then rolling it up and tossing in your bag. Or even folding the tablet and putting it in your back pocket…

Flexible DisplayThe future is supposed to belong to flexible electronics — gadgets than bend, fold, flip or crumple. At CES 2016, LG showed a display that can be rolled up. Samsung too has demoed a TV that can go from flat to curved. Besides, you can buy phones that are bent at the edges or curve like a banana.

But that’s about it. Try bending that curved phone a bit more, and you might hear a loud “snap”, and end up with two phone halves that will make for some funky paperweight. The truth is — like the flying car, flexible gadgets should have been here by now. But they aren’t. As the tech blog Gizmodo wonders, “It’s 2016, So where are our flexible electronics?” Well, the short answer — they are around the bend. The long answer — that bend is so long, it will take at least another year to go around it!

LG's bendable displayCurrently we have reached a stage where the displays are flexible and so are the circuits. But key components aren’t flexible yet, including the chips and the battery. Which means, this year you are likely to see a wave of semi-flexible gadgets, with screens that roll up around an inflexible base housing the rigid parts.

In fact, Belgium based IMEC has been working on “large area flexible electronics” for a few years now, and the company’s technology director, Paul Heremans, writes there is “a sizable interest” from the industry for flexible chips, “but what we need to do now in 2016 is make sure that they are ready to be mass-produced, for example on the infrastructure that is also used to manufacture displays”. And of course, they need to be cheap enough to make sense. Heremans also observes that in 2015, IMEC succeeded in producing a T-shirt with a built-in LED display “that is not only flexible, but also stretches”.

Plastic LogicElsewhere, Pentagon too is interested in flexible electronics. In August 2015, it announced a partnership with leading Silicon Valley firms to “invent and improve flexible hybrid electronics”. As Defense One reports, over the next five years, the US Defense Department will contribute $75 million, while 96 companies including Apple and Lockheed Martin, 11 labs and universities, and other state and local government partners will pitch in $90 million.

Overall, research firm IDTechEx estimates over 3000 organizations “are pursuing printed, organic, flexible electronics, including printing, electronics, materials and packaging companies”. It further estimates the total market for such electronics will grow from $26.54 billion in 2016 to $69.03 billion in 2026.