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The Flexible Future

The Flexible Future
Flex, bend, fold, stretch: Building the road to Ohio’s advanced manufacturing future

The future is flexible, the future is now, and the future is actually here in Northeast Ohio…particularly in the realm of electronics.

Flexible electronics answer a global requirement for products to be lighter, smaller, use less power, and be integrated into portable devices, packaging, clothing and even the human body. Over the next 20 years, the manufacturing of flexible electronics will undergo a profound change from batch processing on rigid substrates to continuous processing on flexible substrates. This change is opening a window of opportunity to build and anchor this high technology industry and its manufacturing base in the United States. At Kent State University, we are committed to driving the creation of this manufacturing base right here in Northeast Ohio.

The region and nation that capture even a fraction of this market by becoming the leader in manufacturing innovation will reap huge rewards

Experts predict an explosive growth after the manufacturing infrastructure is developed. The market is expected to reach $86 billion by the start of 2020, an annual growth rate of 16 percent, with the total market for flexible electronic products reaching up to $250 billion by 2025.

Northeast Ohio now has tremendous opportunity to secure a global leadership position in advanced materials for the manufacturing of devices based on flexible electronics. Ohio companies and universities led by Kent State University have world-class core competencies in the science, materials and manufacturing of flexible electronics technologies. Our expertise includes liquid crystals, functional polymers, batteries and thin-film processing. These core competencies address nearly half the projected market in 2020, with an expected value of approximately $42 billion.

Kent State’s Glenn H. Brown Liquid Crystal Institute (LCI), established in 1965, is one of the world’s most comprehensive research, technology transfer and education programs of its kind. Building on their extensive research in displays, electro-optics and flexible electronics, Kent State researchers have continually expanded the frontiers of liquid crystal science and technology.

In the 1970s, a researcher at LCI demonstrated the first LCDs, which initiated the multi-billion dollar flat panel display industry. In the 1990s researchers at LCI began combining liquid crystals and polymers, subsequently forming a partnership with the University of Akron and Case Western Reserve University to create the Center for Advanced Liquid Crystalline Optical Materials (ALCOM).

From 1991 through 2002, ALCOM, funded by the National Science Foundation, created the technology and intellectual property used in a range of flexible electronics devices developed by spin-off companies that included AlphaMicron, Inc., Crystal Diagnostics, HANA, Kent Displays Incorporated, and Kent Optronics, Inc.

Over the past two decades well over 60 companies including industrial leaders Apple, Samsung, LG, 3M, Corning, Motorola and Kodak have worked closely with LCI researchers. The university also helped to create the FlexMatters Consortium at NorTech to spur the development of a regional cluster of companies in the flexible electronics industry for displays and a host of other critical applications in energy and medicine.

“It is important to recognize that the flexible electronics revolution will reach well beyond displays,” said Grant McGimpsey, Ph.D., vice president for research at Kent State. “Accordingly, our researchers are working on flexible organic photovoltaics (flexPV™) and flexible biomaterials for medical diagnosis and therapeutics.”
The Flexible Future

Commercializing Flexible Technology

Kent State University is developing a new initiative to build a complete commercialization ecosystem for the production of flexible devices and materials – a Technology Commercialization Center for Flexible Devices and Materials.

The Center is an industry-led collaboration administered by Kent State University that will serve as a “One-Stop Flex Shop” connecting material suppliers, device manufacturers and integrators to a network of regional resources at Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, Case Western Reserve University, Northeast Ohio Medical University, the University of Akron and the SMART Center at Lorain County Community College.

The Center will be targeted at rapidly commercializing devices, especially in biomedical, sensing, displays and photovoltaic applications, leveraging Ohio’s technology strengths and filling critical gaps in the manufacturing supply chain and infrastructure.

“Perhaps the most significant feature of the Center will be its focus on introducing new products that can be made and sold today,” said John West, Ph.D., Trustees Research Professor at Kent State and director of the initiative. “Member companies and universities will collaborate to solve common problems in commercializing actual products.”

Toward that end, the Center will build a local supply chain for flexible devices, thereby minimizing the outsourcing of critical functions or suppliers. It also looks to attract business to the region, recruiting companies to Northeast Ohio for flexible device-related commercialization.

The Center will provide these companies with:
  • Access to regional facilities
  • Technical services including: characterization, reliability and standards for qualifying materials and devices
  • Supply chain logistics
  • Lean manufacturing methods
  • Electronics design and prototyping
  • Workforce training
  • Entrepreneurial support
  • Clinical connections and testing for biomedical applications
  • Connections for relevant basic and applied research in areas including: substrates, ITO replacement, thermal dissipation systems, sensors, printing, packaging and switchable polymers
“Our ultimate goal for this tech commercialization initiative is to create a new advanced manufacturing economy in Northeast Ohio,” said McGimpsey. “And the road to this flexible future runs straight through Kent State.”