Partnering with industry to deliver a bright future for large-area electronics in the UK
The vision of the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Large-Area Electronics (CIMLAE) has been to tackle the technical challenges of multifunctional integration of Large-Area Electronics (LAE) systems, making it easier for UK manufacturers to produce complete system products that end-users are demanding. We worked with a wide range of companies who are pioneering this electronics manufacturing revolution and with end-users who see its commercial potential - helping to establish a vibrant new electronics systems manufacturing industry. The Centre completed its operation under the original EPSRC funding grant in June 2019.
The EPSRC Centre opened in October 2013 as a partnership between the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, Swansea University and the University of Manchester. Between 2013 and 2019, the Centre received £5.6m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which we have leveraged with industry support and further funding though a total of 41 research grants into an overall project portfolio of £32m.
Our 30 Centre investigators, 37 post-doctoral researchers and 15 postgraduate students were based in nine UK academic institutions and between them authored 66 research papers and filed 15 invention disclosures during the life of the centre. Other notable outputs are highlighted in the figure above.
We are hugely grateful to the Investigators and the researchers who have together made highly significant scientific and technological progress in the field of Large-Area Electronics, to our industrial partners who have collaborated with us on various joint projects during the life of the Centre, to the members of our Steering Group who have provided invaluable advice, and to all those who attended our various events including the innoLAE conference. Thank you for your support, interest and enthusiastic participation. The Centre has published its Final Review outlining its achievements and future plans to take forward the technologies developed in the Centre (browse the full report here).
Large-Area Electronics (LAE) is, at heart, a new way of making electronics that offers benefits not just in the manufacturing process, but also in the final product where new form factors, design and integration options are enabled. We work with a wide range of new electronic materials that are powering the LAE manufacturing revolution: organic and metal-oxide semiconductors, graphene and other forms of carbon and 2D materials, plastics, nano-particulate metals etc. We build systems that include unpackaged and thin silicon to preserve thinness and flexibility, and we are part of an emerging industry that is being led by hundreds of small innovative companies, many of which started life in the UK as university spinouts from pioneering academic research groups. Increasingly, however, we are seeing engagement with much larger end-user companies that are starting to understand the potential benefits of incorporating LAE technology in their products. We are also seeing the emergence of completely new applications such as bioelectronics for healthcare and e-textiles where the woven fibres themselves incorporate electronic functionality.
Since the founding of the Centre in October 2013, we’ve seen some notable industrial milestones that demonstrate the growing commercial applicability of LAE, beyond the first commercial application in OLED displays. These include the licensing of organic transistor backplane technology to display manufacturers for cutting edge flexible displays, the adoption of OLED lighting in first production vehicles, and first products coming off the production line of PragmatIC, a pioneering British company producing ultra-low cost flexible Integrated circuits and with whom we have had multiple collaborative projects since their founding in 2010.
Our Technology Portfolio
The Centre developed a portfolio of LAE flagship projects across 8 topic areas, developing advanced processes and devices that could be brought together as a system and so be used to explore the challenges of multifunctional system integration and to develop solutions to these challenges. The Centre focussed our technology development in 5 areas:
- Organic Field Effect Transistor (oFET) gas sensors
- Solution processable complementary analogue circuits
- Advanced rheometry to improve quality control in functional inks for printable electronics
- Advanced bonding techniques for interconnection in hybrid and multilayer plastic circuits
- Adhesion lithography, a new, parallel, large-area process for production of nano-gaps for high-speed devices
Demonstrating Advanced Technology
To focus the research projects on tangible deliverables whose value would be readily understood, we defined three classes of demonstrator that we would target in the final year of Centre operation:
- A demonstrator of customisation that is possible with additive deposition of functional materials – such as those deposited by inkjet for example;
- A demonstrator of the innovative integration of silicon and large-area electronics, in which each element “plays to its strengths”, recognising the power of silicon and the form factor benefits of LAE;
- A demonstrator of multi-functional integration of LAE – i.e. bringing together several LAE devices into an electronic system.
As part of our National Centre role to involve researchers from outside the 4 partner Universities of the Centre in our research portfolio pipeline, we ran 2 calls for short feasibility “Pathfinder” projects open to any member of the UK LAE academic research community. A total of 36 proposals were received and 9 were funded.
Partnership with Industry
Each of the Centre’s project investments involved industrial partners to provide early feedback and guidance to the researchers and also to accelerate technology transfer and uptake following successful completion of the projects. A total of 64 industrial partners and RTOs collaborated with us to take forward technology developed in the Centre. We were particularly pleased that one of our Pathfinder projects assisted the formation of a startup company making flexible batteries, Zinergy UK Ltd (www.zinergy-power.com). A number of case studies illustrating some of the ways in which CIMLAE partnered with industry are detailed here.
Growing a strong UK LAE community
LAE is an emerging high-tech manufacturing industry with many small players and a few large suppliers and end-users. We decided that to accelerate knowledge transfer and grow the size, strength and health of the UK’s LAE sector, we would create the Innovations in Large-Area Electronics conference (innoLAE) to bring together the academic and industrial communities to enable industry to present its challenges and needs and academia to provide early notification of research breakthroughs. The conference was first held in 2015 and has continued to achieve an equal balance of delegates from industry and academia with participation from over 300 institutions in 27 countries. innoLAE now attracts over 200 delegates and outgrown 2 venues.
innoLAE continues to flourish after the end of the Centre grant with the 2021 conference and future events being organised by IMI Europe Ltd, who have a long and successful track record of delivering international conferences and training events. This offers the potential for the significant further development of the innoLAE conference and exhibition, whilst maintaining its tried and tested approach. For details visit www.innolae.org.
Training researchers for industry
One key impact of the Centre is the flow of highly trained staff with applicable skills to the Large-Area Electronics industry. Eight of our researchers are now working in UK industry and a further three are (or have been) seconded to industry partners. Profiles of many of our researchers can be accesseed under People.
Although research funded under the EPSRC Centre grant is now complete, 11 research activities are continuing and we are confident that, with the completed and continuing research involving many UK companies and with the 15 Invention Disclosures submitted, all our stakeholders will see significant and continuing impact from EPSRC’s core investment in the Centre.