A Look at Printed Electronics: Printed Electronics Now Interview with Dr. David Corr

The field of printed electronics is clearly evolving, and it is interesting to hear the perspective of people who have long been involved in the field. From time to time, Printed Electronics Now will interview some of the leaders in the field, and present their viewpoints.

This week, we spoke with Dr. David Corr of NTERA. Co-founder of NTERA and a pioneer in nanomaterial science and nanotechnology with extensive commercial experience, Dr. Corr serves as CEO of NTERA. Under his leadership, NTERA successfully transitioned from research to commercialization. Over this time period, Dr. Corr has helped secure more than $30 million in private equity funding and has been responsible for developing many of NTERA's early academic and commercial relationships.

Previously, Dr. Corr held positions in research and engineering with Wyeth Medica Ireland, where he was responsible for technology transfer and new product introductions. He is a widely recognized industry expert and inventor in the field of nanomaterial science, with more than 10 patent families in the area of nanoparticle electrochromics.

NTERA has put together a very nice ecosystem of partners and this has been continuously demonstrated in prototypes, demonstrators and products the company has made. NTERA has strict criteria to work most closely with those partners that have commercially available solutions so that customers can be confident that beyond a prototype there is the capability to manufacture at scale. Several of its early products now have been manufactured at the tens of thousands of pieces scale, which in itself provides NTERA and its partners many valuable lessons learned in the scale and organization required to make a viable product offering. NTERA also does work with earlier stage technologies but is careful to not oversell these inappropriately as they may not have the maturity to move to commercial scales quickly.

Most recently, based on much of this experience, NTERA has taken the decision to be more involved in product design beyond just its inks and displays. In this regard NTERA sees itself as an emerging Original Design Manufacturer with display technology at the center of its design efforts. NTERA believes this will help OEMs overcome some of the barriers to taking up printed electronics as they will now have a credible partner that can leverage proprietary technology with system level know-how and a network or partners that can be selected based on suitability of technology and commercial availability of components.

Printed Electronics Now: What is your background in the field of PE?

Dr. David Corr: NTERA was founded with a view to providing advanced materials, specifically nanostructured materials, for a wide variety of applications. We realized our materials could address electronic applications such as Smart Windows, Automotive Mirrors and Displays, and out of these realized our advantage within electrochromics was in displays. The materials required casting as films in the micron range so processes such as vapour deposition and sputtering where incapable of efficiently producing the correct film characteristics, so we turned to printing.

NTERA has therefore used printing as a primary method of deposition of its electrochromic materials for several years now, and we have developed deep experience in the requirements of these inks for production environments. We have primarily used screenprinting, but have also worked with flexo and inkjettable inks. Although primarily focused on the inks for our electrochromics, we have had to adopt a competence in printing polymers and other conductors. So our background could be characterized as electrochemical materials with a strong understanding of other complementary electroactive and dielectric materials. Our electrochemical focus has led to some really novel devices. Printing all solid state electrochromic devices has been extended to looking at other electrochemical devices and we have innovated a very cool device that, by adding some layers to our electrochromic stack we build in a battery functionality, effectively creating an autonomously powered display.

Through our history we have also become competent in system level design and integration, and at this point can also design our display in a turnkey solution literally from the molecule through the display and electronic system up to the product's form factor.

Printed Electronics Now: How has the printed electronics industry changed since you first joined the field?

Dr. David Corr: We printed plastic display devices as early as 2002. In fact, some of the applications being sought then are still in development, e.g., powered display cards was envisioned at that time by some of the card manufacturers. We also saw other devices around such as flat batteries from Varta.

However, there were significant gaps in terms of materials and devices. Good substrates that could withstand the processes of printing and heating multilayer structures and retain dimensional stability were in the early development stage. Conductive inks, although available were still essentially specialty inks and printable transparent conductors were also very nascent. So, in short, when we thought of putting a device together largely by printing methods, the availability of materials to print, to print on, and companies to print them were all issues that were yet to be resolved.

Comparing then to now, there has been a sea change in most all of these categories. In 2005/2006 we attended a printed electronics conference and many of the speakers were companies demonstrating technical advances in their materials, early prototypes of devices and printers having started to realise functional materials being important to their future success. This is about the time NTERA started to seriously think about printed electronics.

However, it really was not until mid-2007 that we seriously got engaged with the vision of a truly all-printable display platform. Since then, each year we have been involved there have been very nice advancements. As an example, in 2008 there were many different devices being shown as individual components, by 2009 many companies had collaborated and that year integrated devices, such as a printed battery powered display cards and the first radio powered displays by PolyIC were shown.

By 2010 there was more commercial demonstration in applications, more material suppliers, and printers getting engaged. We hope this year will be an important year to see more commercial progress with several applications at least being trialed commercially.

At NTERA we intend to move beyond our inks and displays and become more involved with design and integration as many of our customers have engaged us in helping them pull together the supply chain partners to build systems and at this point we have a very nice partner network that is practical, engaged and willing, to invest time and effort in producing the first products.

Printed Electronics Now: What are the key advancements that have allowed for these changes to occur?

Dr. David Corr: I believe the advancements have been multi-fold in materials, printing processes and device designs. I believe that the idea of "nano" has matured in the first decade and it truly has evolved to more of an engineering as much as a scientific term. Materials scientists and chemists are thus more aware of the uses their materials are being put to and the performance requirements needed for them to become commercially acceptable. Printing too has evolved and finer lines, more accurate material deposition and curing technologies have effectively given the same scientists and engineers a platform to control traditional chemical process parameters of concentration, volume, and temperature within the downstream manufacturing process. It is this ability to literally form materials in situ in the manufacturing process that I believe will deliver the richness of innovation to the field.

Printed Electronics Now: What are the technical hurdles that need to be overcome to move PE forward?

Dr. David Corr: I believe more and more integration is required to evolve the technologies developed from stand-alone, functional devices to more sophisticated, integrated systems, which are product-like in terms of form factor. In the end the consumer buys products with technology integrated, not technology in its raw state and I believe that this design integration is a key step that must be overcome to move PE forward collectively. At this point the hurdles to overcome for PE to become a credible "space" are more commercial in nature and involved companies taking some risk and innovating with the "tool box" of printable components now available.

Printed Electronics Now: Where do you see the field of printed electronics heading in both the near term and, say, 10 years from now?

Dr. David Corr: In the near term, I would see hybrid products emerging, alongside less complex printed electronics products - so nothing surprising there! The technology of printed logic will take a while to evolve, so this will mean a period of time where conventional silicon is used within devices otherwise populated with printed technologies. This is a good thing however as the advantages of flat, flexible, robust, cost effectiveness and low power that printed electronics offers can still be offered in new and existing form factors relatively quickly to the market when "hybridization" is accepted and implemented in clever ways.

Longer term, I would sees the components outside printed logic become more complex, essentially through more advances in materials and processes that will enable higher densities in displays, memory, batteries, etc. and give rise to truly disruptive and more useful products that can replace existing electronic products. It is difficult to say at this point where printed electronics will replace conventional, though I believe that the two will co-exist for a long time yet.