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IT Strategy: Plastic future

David Rae

With any luck you’ll still be reading Financial Director in five
years’ time. The thing is, it may not be on paper. At least it won’t be if
Plastic Logic, a British technology start up, which was spun out of
Cambridge University’s
Cavendish Laboratory
in 2000, has anything to do with it.

On 3 January, the company announced it had secured $100m worth of funding to
help build the world’s first plastic electronics plant. The main application of
the plant will be to commercialise electronic reading technology – which is
claimed to be almost as flexible, and have the same look and feel, as paper.

According to the company’s chief operating officer, John Mills, the
technology will revolutionise digital displays. “Our displays will enable
electronic reader products that are as comfortable and natural to read as paper
whether you’re on a beach, on a train or relaxing on the sofa at home,” he said.
“Wireless connectivity will allow you to purchase and download a book or pick up
the latest edition of your newspaper wherever you are and whenever you need it.
The battery will last for thousands of pages so you can leave your charger at

Without delving too deeply into the techno-babble that makes such an unlikely
technology work, plastic semiconductors are created by building up layers of
conducting or semi-conducting plastics. If truth be told, the technology isn’t
particularly new, with scientists proving that plastics could carry a flow of
electrons as early as the 1970s. The successful commercialisation of it,
however, certainly is and it’s this which has made the Plastic Logic
announcement so important and exciting.

The company hopes that its new factory, which is to be built in Dresden,
Germany, following an “extensive worldwide site selection process”, will produce
2.2 million plastic semiconductor sheets every year – which at first will be
about the size of a sheet of A4 paper. Ultimately, however, the technology will
be refined so that the company, and others like it, will be able to start
producing plastic microchips. These will be made using the same basic techniques
that will be employed in manufacturing the A4-sized semiconductors, but at a
much smaller size.

It will be at this point that the potential of plastic electronics extends
beyond Plastic Logic’s A4-sized digital displays, the market for which alone is
predicted to grow to 41.6 million units by 2010. “With this investment we are
not only scaling up a great company – we are also creating a new electronics
industry that will become a significant addition to silicon,” says Hermann
Hauser, one of the original backers of the company and a director of Amadeus, a
venture capital firm. He is so excited by the technology that he went so far as
to say that he wouldn’t be surprised if Professor Henning Sirringhaus, the
company’s chief scientist and co-founder, received a Nobel prize for his work.

Hauser’s description of the creation of a new electronics industry may seem
like an exaggeration. Not necessarily. When the company was first spun out of
Cambridge University at the turn of the millennium, its directors claimed that
the breakthrough could become a “machine for making money”.

And it’s easy to see why. Plastic semiconductors and microchips, once the
techniques have been perfected, could be produced for a fraction of the cost
that current silicon-based components are. In fact, estimates of plastics
cutting the costs of electronic circuitry by as much as 90% are not uncommon.
And with that, whole new areas which were previously closed to electronics due
to the relatively high cost of silicon chip production, will be opened up for

Intelligent chips could be included in food packaging, for example, so that
microwaves know exactly how long to cook ready meals for; they could be sewed
into clothes. Analyst firm IDTechEx predicts that the plastic electronics
industry will be worth $30bn by 2015 and could reach as high as $250bn by 2025.

So it’s no wonder that the giants of the electronics world are looking for a
slice of the action. Lucent, Philips, Hitachi and Samsung all either have
plastic electronics programs underway, or are monitoring the situation closely.
Intel, as one might expect, is already a shareholder in Plastic Logic – as is
the world’s largest chemical company, BASF.

Over the past hundred years or so, the technology sector has been marked with
several obvious, industry changing developments and breakthroughs that
catapulted the industry forward.

More often than not these breakthroughs emanated from the other side of the
Atlantic, with Bell Labs, in particular, leading from the front and developing
such industry changing technologies as the transistor and the laser. So it’s
gratifying to see a British company at the cutting-edge of such a potentially
important technological breakthrough.

It’s just a shame that the UK isn’t attractive enough a location for Plastic
Logic to build its factory here. That really would have been something to be
proud of.

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