UK aims to build base for plastic electronics

The UK government hopes to avoid a repeat of a flight offshore for materials technologies with the launch of a strategy for the nascent business of plastic electronics.

Speaking at the launch of the strategy held at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in London, business secretary Lord Mandelson said he did not want a repeat of the situation where, in his view, lack of government focus saw the UK lose key parts of Airbus manufacture. “We took our eye off the ball with composites in the early 1990s. Surprise, surprise, we saw wing manufacture just peeling away from Britain to Germany and Spain. We cannot allow that to happen again in crucial areas of technological development,” he said.

According to Lord Mandelson, demand for plastic electronics could surge past $120bn by 2020. “By allowing electrical circuits to be printed onto flexible surfaces it has a huge range of applications. It offers huge potential for UK leadership. The UK, along with Germany and the US has already secured a world lead. We need to ensure we don’t lose it.”

Lord Mandelson said government support is necessary for technology-oriented industries. “Governments should not stand back,” he said, although the money committed so far specifically for plastic electronics is less than £10m.

“I don’t see it as a gamble. [The technology] has already has been proven. The step from viability to ubiquity is an important one and one we have to organise and deliver with care,” said Lord Mandelson.

Iain Gray, chief executive of the TSB, said the organisation has already invested money in more than 60 plastic-electronics projects, “ranging from a small £30,000 feasibility study through to £12m for a three-year project to develop a full-colour, fully flexible display with low power consumption”.

“We believe that it will become a mainstream technology and it addresses some of the societal challenges of our day. Even in manufacture, plastic electronics will bring major benefits over silicon in terms of energy consumption,” Gray claimed.

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) has committed £8m to a pair of competitions, the first of which aims to develop a set of demonstrators to promote the potential of plastic electronics to UK businesses in fields such as clothing, lighting and pharmaceutical packaging. One of the exhibits at the launch was an illuminated coat (pictured) designed by Gareth Pugh. “We now need to connect technology with end users,” said Gray.

The demonstrators are expected to come from a workshop to be held in March that will involve approximately 40 engineers, product designers and users.

The second competition, to open in mid-January and which takes 60 per cent of the funding, is intended to help build a workable supply chain for plastic electronics. The strategy document prepared by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills identified weaknesses in production equipment and product design as potential hurdles to wider adoption of plastic electronics that need to be addressed.

The strategy document calls for the creation of a Plastic Electronics Leadership Group, similar to the Electronics Leadership Council formed in late 2005. Keith Rollins, business development manager for Dupont Teijin Films and chairman of the Plastic Electronics Strategy Group formed by BIS to prepare the document, said: “The council does a fine job for us. This is designed as a relatively short sharp intervention.”

As well as influencing the development of Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) competitions to promote plastic electronics, the group is also expected to put together a roadmap for the development of the various technologies where the UK can play a major role. “It would be naïve to take a UK-only view of this and say wouldn’t it be nice if...,” said Rollins. “We will focus on places where the UK can win.”

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