One of the best parts of my job is getting an early look at what’s coming down the pipeline in various areas of our city. I had a great tour last week of Kent State’s soon to be opening Liquid Crystal Manufacturing Accelerator. This is an enormously important facility to Kent State, the City of Kent, the Franklin Township and Northeast Ohio — because it is pioneering a whole new field with the potential to explode over the next 10 years. Forget Palo Alto or Menlo Park, if this is as successful as predicted, Kent will be the epicenter of research and manufacturing for a new multi-billion dollar industry. I was staggered by the numbers and about as excited as a city manager is legally allowed to get while on duty.
Most everyone around town knows about Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute. It is the premier research facility for LCD technology in the world. And for those that keep an eye on the local economy, you probably know about some of the very successful spin-off companies from the Institute: Alpha Micron and Kent Displays for example.
Well, I’ve come to discover that these companies have only scratched the surface of the commercial applications of their technology and thanks to an $8 million Third Frontier Grant award from the State of Ohio, Kent State is partnering with Akron University and a half dozen corporations to create a state of the art facility to accelerate the development of manufacturing applications of a new whole branch of LCD technology called flexible technology.
I won’t try to explain the technology but it’s really important to know that this is a first of it’s kind collaboration that leverages the strength of our region (LCD and polymers) in both research and manufacturing to create a whole new industry where the sky is the limit.
Dr. John West is the director of the effort and you couldn’t find a better ambassador for the technology. The facility is located in the old Kent State Bus Garage on SR59. Dr. West told me that he is planning the formal opening of the new technology accelerator for June 8th, 2007. So keep your calendar clear, you don’t want to miss this event.
The new collaboration of all the important partners to this emerging industry goes by the title “FlexMatters.” Here’s a few excerpts about the partnership:
Welcome to FLEXMatters, the Northeastern Ohio initiative to build an industrial cluster for the manufacture of flexible displays and electronic devices. FLEXMatters joins universities, industry and federal labs across the region to work together on this common goal. The potential for this new industry is huge. Over the next decades the glass and rigid substrates and batch manufacturing processes used to produce displays, electronics and photovolatics are destined to be replaced with flexible substrates and continuous reel-to-reel manufacturing.
Ohio is a logical home for this industry. Our combination of research strengths in liquid crystals and polymers are found nowhere else. The results of our research have spawned a host of spin off companies that are taking an early lead in the commercialization of flexible displays and devices. Local companies working in liquid crystals and in displays include Akron Polymer Systems, AlphaMicron, CoAdna, Global Lighting, Grafix Plastics, HanaMicrodisplays, Kent Displays, Kent Optronics, LXD and NanoFilm. Unlike our competitors, many of these local companies are utilizing technologies that are compatible with commercially available substrates and can be produced using relatively simple manufacturing techniques. We therefore plan an early market entry. These companies are supported by a huge polymer industry. Ohio is a leader in the global polymer industry and is among the top states in the nation for plastics and rubber production.
There are many groups around the world pursuing flexible displays and electronics. They are pursuing technologies that require significant materials breakthroughs to enter the market. For example OLED materials are sensitive to oxygen and water vapor and therefore require gas diffusion barrier layers that are not available for flexible substrates. Conventional LCD affects require polarized light and therefore nonbirefringent substrates that again are not commercially available. Finally most of the other technologies require active matrix substrates to produce high-resolution images. The organic semiconductors required to produce an active matrix on flexible substrates are again not yet ready for commercializaiton.
By utilizing simple technologies that utilize commercially available materials Ohio companies are entering the market now. AlphaMicron, www.alphamicron.com, has already commercialized electrically adjustable lenses using their proprietary VALid Technology. Incorporated in UVex Ski Goggles, the lenses have proven their commercial viability and won the “Best Of What’s New” award from Popular Science magazine. If you’d like to buy a pair just go to the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, www.hammacher.com.
Kent Displays, www.kentdisplays.com, is poised to be the first to commercialize flexible displays produced in a reel-to-reel process. Using their proprietary encapsulated bistable cholesteric technology they have demonstrated fabricating displays on single substrates and even on woven fabrics As we ramp up production of these products, we will develop an entirely new manufacturing infrastructure. We are already able to reliably print transparent conducting electrodes, We know how to singulate individual devices from the continuous web produced in reel-to-reel manufacturing and know how to effectively connect the drive electronics.
Ohio is providing substantial support as we pioneer this new industry. Through FLEXMatters we are collaborating to build the manufacturing infrastructure required to grow the industry.