Plastic Logic showcases e-paper R&D initiatives

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Plastic Logic opened the doors of it's Cambridge lab on 27 June, to give journalists and analysts an insight into some of its research and development projects. As well as demonstrating the world's first colour flexible plastic display with video rate driven by organic thin-film transistors (OTFTs), the company was also keen to show off some of its other innovations, including, transmissive backplanes, ultra-thin form factors and plastic displays embedded with silicon chips. 

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Plastic Logic showcases e-paper R&D initiatives

Plastic Logic opened the doors of it's Cambridge lab on 27 June, to give journalists and analysts an insight into some of its research and development projects. As well as demonstrating the world's first colour flexible plastic display with video rate driven by organic thin-film transistors (OTFTs), the company was also keen to show off some of its other innovations, including, transmissive backplanes, ultra-thin form factors and plastic displays embedded with silicon chips. Here are some of the highlights from the day >>>

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Electronic paper in colour

Plastic Logic's colour flexible plastic displays are developed so that the image appears right on the surface, rather than buried beneath a layer of glass. The displays only use power when they are updating, making them very power-efficient, particularly for applications like signage where they only need to be updated daily or hourly. The displays are reflective, meaning that the colours look brighter in sunlight. However, the colours are relatively dull compared to liquid crystal displays – more akin to the colours in printed newspapers – because there is no backlight.

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Optimising text clarity

One of Plastic Logic's key research areas is around optimising text clarity. The standard displays have a resolution of 150ppi (pixels per inch), but the company has developed screens with a 225ppi backplane. The conventional displays have about 1 million organic transistors, supporting about 6 pixels per millimetre; the new displays have about 3m transistors and about 9 pixels per millimetre. While this makes little difference for Latin characters, a higher resolution can be essential when reading Kanji or Chinese characters with a small font size. It also helps improving colour.

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Video animation

The company demonstrated video animation running on a flexible plastic display at about 12.5 frames per second, which is substantially slower than conventional video content but smooth enough for purpose. Plastic Logic said that it is often a trade-off between speed and contrast, so the slower the animation, the better the contrast. This technology could one day be used to deliver video content such as Flash on light-weight e-readers.

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Transmissive backplanes

Plastic Logic's most recent research activities have been to develop a transmissive backplane, that can be used in devices with a backlight. Transmissive backplanes have the same electrical properties as its reflective backplanes, but have been designed in such as way to open up a big aperture inside each pixel, in order to achieve a high level of transmission.

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Plastic transistors in logic circuits

Plastic Logic is looking at building these transistors into logic circuits, in order to add functionality to smart labels and anti-counterfeit tags. Once these building blocks are in place, they can be connected together to build more complicated circuits. These circuits are very difficult to reverse-engineer because, unlike standard semiconductors, where you could etch them away layer by layer, this is a stack of plastics, and if you put it in most solvents they'll just all dissolve.

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Stress testing

One of the key characteristics of Plastic Logic's electronic paper technology is that it's flexible. This machine is used to stress test the material and measure the impact that bending and manipulation has on the displays. The picture shows about the maximum that one of the company's standard e-reader displays can bend. However, thinner versions currently in development will be able to fold almost in half.

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Custom-built displays

Plastic Logic also makes smaller displays besides e-readers. One of the benefits of smaller displays is that the yield is higher, because the risk of defects is lower. Defects are mainly caused by tiny particles of dirt during the manufacturing process. Plastic Logic's main manufacturing plant in Dresden has a class 100 clean room, and every panel that is processed is only exposed to class 10 environments, but even then defects still occur.

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Robust and flexible

Engineers decided to show how robust Plastic Logic's displays were by shooting a bullet through one of them. Although a portion of the display was damaged, the majority was still visible and also responded when the input changed. The screen can also be cut with scissors and still display the image, as long as the electronics themselves are not damaged.

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Ultra-thin backplanes

Most of Plastic Logic's backplanes are about the thickness of a stiff piece of card. However, the company is developing an ultra thin version of its backplane, using the same technology, which is half the thickness of a piece of paper. This makes the electronic paper even easier to manipulate, opening up new possibilities for wearable devices such as watches and hospital wristbands.

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Embedded Silicon

In order to make its products more attractive to device manufacturers, Plastic Logic has been experimenting with bonding silicon chips directly with the plastic. Here the chips are embedded around the edge of the display, removing the need for external attachments. The LCD industry is using this technology on glass. The company said that using plastic takes the technology to another level, combining the large plastic electronics displays with the high functionality of the silicon.

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Ready for business

Just over a month ago, Plastic Logic abandoned plans to manufacture its own e-readers, deciding instead to license its flexible display technology and software to OEMs, system integrators, and device manufacturers. However, the electronic displays are still available for use in third part e-readers. The large screen makes it particularly suitable for the health and educations sectors, as well for business.

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Scalable displays

Plastic Logic was keen to show that its processes are scalable – from individual transistors (represented at the front), through 4-inch displays that verify how the transistors work together, to 14-inch displays that test the uniformity and scalability of the manufacture process. The large plane at the back is larger than an A1 sheet of paper, and contains nine standard displays. Although the Cambridge R&D centre manufactures displays individually, they can be mass produced on larger sheets like this.

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Tiling

Here are nine tiles which have been connected together to make a railway timetable, but much larger displays could be made by connecting 12, 20 or even 30 tiles together. This could be used to create low-power electronic billboards or display panels. A stack of tiles can fit into a briefcase, and then be assembled on-site for use in business presentations, or to create animated signs.

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