Thin Film Electronics Plans to Provide ‘Memory Everywhere’

By David Savastano

New opportunities in the consumer market are waiting as printed electronics (PE) companies make the all-important move from R&D and pilot production into full production modes. Thin Film Electronics ASA (Thinfilm), headquartered in Oslo, Norway, is on the leading edge of the PE market, and its printed memory systems are drawing great interest from developers.

Thinfilm Memory printed by PolyIC. (Photo courtesy of PolyIC and Thinfilm)
In the last few months, Thinfilm has further increased its market activities. Thinfilm Memory production is now ready to move from pilot to commercial volumes, and the company is designing an inexpensive Thinfilm Memory Controller. In addition, Thinfilm has started development of the next generation of higher density printed memories.

The company has partnered with many industry leaders, including PolyIC, Soligie, InkTec Ltd., Cartamundi, Solvay, Xaar plc, and Intel Corporation, a partnership that demonstrated 512 Mb production ready hybrid passive array memory based on 0.25 µm technology.

Thinfilm was the first in the world to produce fully printed rewritable non-volatile memory in June 2006, and, jointly with its manufacturing partners, achieved high-volume printing of fully functioning memory units in 2009. Actually, the company has been developing its technology for more than 15 years, and that hard work is paying off now.

“We experience a high degree of interest from this audience, and we have now reached a point where several new toys and game concepts which use Thinfilm Memory are under development,” said Rolf Åberg, CEO of Thinfilm.

“Currently, we concentrate our efforts on the toys and games market, where we see significant near-term commercial prospects,” continued Davor Sutija, executive vice president of Thinfilm. “In addition, we are pursuing next generation printed electronics products, combining printed memory with other technologies such as transistors, sensors and displays.”

The History of Thin Film Electronics

The history of Thinfilm dates back to 1994, with the establishment of Opticom ASA, which was formed to develop all-plastic memory devices. Between 1995 and 1998, Opticom patented its core IP in bi-stable polymeric materials, cell architectures, addressing schemes and production processes in collaboration with leading research institutes, universities and companies worldwide. Thin Film Electronics, its subsidiary, became an independent company in 2005, and listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange in January 2008.

“Thinfilm has been pioneering electronic memory technology based on printable polymer materials since 1994, first as part of Opticom and then as an independent company,” said Sutija. “For the first 10 years, the focus was on hybrid memory devices with polymer-based memory and silicon-based control circuitry, as developed jointly with Intel. From 2006, Thinfilm has concentrated its efforts exclusively on printed electronics, including developing industry partnerships that will enable an end-to-end delivery chain for bringing the printed polymer memory applications to market.”

Thinfilm’s Key Advantages

The enabling technology behind Thinfilm’s memory is based on the use of soluble and thus printable, electrically switchable, ferroelectric, non-volatile (bi-stable) polymers, which Sutija said functions as a rewritable permanent memory material.

Thinfilm Memory printed by IncTec. (Photo courtesy of Thinfilm)
“This material is sandwiched between two sets of electrodes forming a capacitor-like structure in a passive matrix array configuration,” Sutija noted. “The Thinfilm-patented passive matrix is the ‘Holy Grail’ of memory architectures that dispenses with the need of active circuitry within the memory cell.

“The memory function is built on an intrinsic mechanism related to the orientation of the polymer chains,” Sutija added. “The polymer chains can be oriented in two different directions representing ‘0’ and ‘1.’ Each state is stable without application of an external field, which means that information in the memory will not be lost when the power is turned off. This is referred to as a non-volatile memory. The intrinsic character of the polymer means that the technology is extremely scalable.”

Another key competitive advantage of Thinfilm’s memory technology is that it is fully printable in high volume roll-to-roll processes. Thinfilm has two production partners that have demonstrated high-volume manufacturing, InkTec Ltd. in South Korea and PolyIC in Germany.

The currently printed memories consist of a total of five printed layers. Gravure, micro-gravure and other printing methods are combined to print these layers economically.

“First of all, the printed Thinfilm Memory is inexpensive,” Sutija noted. “Using roll-to-roll printing, Thinfilm can deliver re-writable cent-level memory tags in high volumes. Furthermore, the new Thinfilm Memory Controller will further increase the cost leadership of Thinfilm’s printed memory compared to alternatives, such as magnetic cards and flash, on a per-chip/per-device basis. Another key advantage is negligible power consumption during read and write and none during stand-by. These advantages, combined with the environmentally-friendly production, makes the Thinfilm Memory well suited for application with other printed electronics devices.”

These differentiate Thinfilm from its PE counterparts.

“Thinfilm is unique in offering rewriteable non-volatile memories produced in a roll-to-roll printing process,” said Geir Harald Aase, vice president communications and IR for Thinfilm. “This means that we enable an entire new set of electronic applications enabled by flexible, low-cost electronic memories. Initially, Thinfilm Memory will be used in the toys and games market, but we also foresee a range of additional applications, such as flexible, low-cost smart tagging for the consumer goods markets.

“Furthermore, the combination of Thinfilm’s unique technology and its partnership model works well for establishing strategic industry relationships,” Aase added. “Thinfilm brings both know-how and printed electronics components (i.e., memory) to such partnerships, which is attractive, for example, for printing companies that want to move into the printed electronics field, or electronics companies that see printed electronics as an additional market opportunity.”

Thinfilm’s Potential

Now that the company has successfully achieved high-volume roll-to-roll printing of its Thinfilm Memory chips, it can move forward into development.

“As Rolf mentioned, several products using Thinfilm Memory are on drawing boards,” Sutija said. “In this context, the development of the new Thinfilm Memory Controller is also important. It further simplifies the integration of the Thinfilm Memory into game designs, and ensures shorter time-to-market for memory-enhanced games. It also enables new stand-alone hand-held toy designs, and provides a low-cost small-footprint reader/writer platform for application in other industries. We are also continuing to make progress together with our partners in moving to volume production.”

Sutija believes that Thinfilm’s success is emblematic of the growth of the overall PE market.

“We believe PE is on the verge of significant growth in terms of the number of applications leveraging printed electronics,” Sutija said. “However, this growth will initially be driven with relatively simple applications such as simple integrated (e.g. sensor-type) applications, and not advanced applications, such as RFID. Clearly, memory will play an important role both in driving market adoption as well as in the creation of integrated products using a variety of printed electronic components.

“Thinfilm has already started work on the next-generation higher density printed memories,” Sutija added. “Higher-density printed memories are expected to be coupled with printed primary batteries, sensors and displays, creating disposable packaging and status indicator elements. We see very promising research and development carried out in the field of printed electronics, and many types of electronic components can today be printed.

“To achieve fully printed electronic systems, some additional breakthroughs may be necessary, not least on printed transistors, but we feel that the materials are likely already available; it is a matter of good engineering and circuit design, as well as securing the supply chain of commercial suppliers – all areas where Thinfilm can contribute,” Sutija concluded.