A factory nearing completion in Dresden in Germany holds the key to determining whether a UK-based company that has invented a way to make plastic microchips will be a success.
Engineers in the plant, run by Cambridge-based Plastic Logic, are finalising trials of secret processes for forming, from plastic, a series of densely packed electronic circuits – the result of breakthroughs in materials engineering at Cambridge University’s physics department over the past 20 years.
The company says these ideas will create a powerful substitute for the silicon-based processing technologies that have fuelled the growth of the microchip industry for 50 years.
The plant’s first products will be plastic-based displays. At roughly the size of an A4 sheet of paper, and with a diagonal dimension of 10.7 inches, the displays, complete with a metal case to protect them, will weigh only 300g-400g.
That could make them more acceptable to users than the smaller displays made from a glass/semiconductor base and which are the norm in computing.
Plastic Logic – backed by $200m (£101m) from a consortium of investors – says it has a good chance to establish itself as a leader in the expanding industry of display products for mobile internet use.
“The world is becoming increasingly interested in mobile computing,“ says Peter King, a director at Strategy Analytics, a US consultancy. “By 2014, sales of a new generation of mobile internet devices [fairly cheap yet powerful computers for downloading information via wireless links] could be running at 70m a year. But people won’t want to download all kinds of hugely interesting content, and then try to squint at it on the tiny screens that are the norm for computing on the move.”
Mark Gostick, chief executive of Netherlands-based Liquavista, a company trying to develop novel displays for computing, says of Plastic Logic: “I don’t know of anyone who is as far ahead [in plastic screens] as this company.”
Two existing devices for downloading books in electronic form and which have been launched recently are the Kindle and the Reader digital book, made respectively by Amazon, the US internet retailer, and Japan’s Sony electronics group.
The weight of the Amazon and Sony devices are 292g and 255g, respectively, and both have six-inch screens.
Given that their screen size is smaller than the Plastic Logic device, this makes them appear relatively heavy. This is principally because the displays are based on the orthodox way of creating screens, which use a glass sheet coated with a semiconductor material such as silicon.
Mainly because of the weight factor, Amazon and Sony have resisted the idea of engineering their devices so they are bigger.
Virtually all the displays used in mobile computing applications – and increasingly in the electronics industry as a whole – are made from glass. The most popular technique for such flat-screens is to use liquid crystals to form the pixel elements that provide information in the shape of words or pictures.
The Kindle, Reader and Plastic Logic displays all use a newer idea – tiny capsules of ink which move under electronic control – to provide better resolution and screen quality.
Assuming the Plastic Logic device were to gain widespread use, it would need to be hooked up via a wireless link or a cable to a computer that contains electronic “intelligence” – so that, for instance, it can connect to the internet. It could also be hooked up to a computer memory, containing, for instance, data equivalent to hundreds of books.
When in use, people with the displays will be able to scroll through different pages simply by touching parts of the screen.
The price of the displays has not yet been decided. But it will probably be a few hundred dollars, to put them in a similar price range as the Kindle and the Reader.
Plastic Logic is hoping it can interest enough businesses – such as electronic publishers or even companies that want to give their employees an alternative to carrying briefcases stuffed with paper – to allow it to achieve sales of up to $500m a year within a few years, according to Hermann Hauser, a director.
Such aspirations might look a little ambitious, given that the Dresden factory is not yet open and marketing of the screens is not due to start until next year. But Plastic Logic and its backers are hoping its products will usher in a new age when plastics-based computing becomes a reality.