hp-3Perhaps technology can save the doomed newspaper.

It has taken nine years of research, but HP Labs has made good progress creating paper-thin plastic displays that could work fine displaying the text and photos of newspaper stories. For now, the displays are black and white and they can display e-ink, the same kind of electronic text used in the Amazon Kindle book reader. The circuitry that drives these displays can be printed on plastic in a way that’s similar to laying down ink on paper.

Over time, the paper-thin displays could be used to create color images in all sorts of applications, said Carl Taussig (right), director of the information surfaces lab at Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto, Calif. The displays have come a long way. In the next 18 months, HP plans to start delivering displays as part of Dick Tracy-style watches it is creating for U.S. Army infantry soldiers. Commercial applications are also planned in part through an HP spinoff, Phicot. It’s easy to envision the displays being used in everything from electronic magazines to wearable displays.

HP buys about 65 million displays a year for its various computer products. Those liquid-crystal-displays are made by big Asian conglomerates such as LG and Samsung in giant factories. But the HP plastic displays could be made in relatively simple factories with new processing equipment. Taussig says that HP isn’t planning to manufacture the displays itself, but it could still benefit via the spinoff or other ways.

Many new display technologies don’t stand a chance because LCD has so much momentum behind it. Sony has been trying to make its own bendable displays, made with organic light emitting diodes. But those displays haven’t taken off except in smaller sizes so far. The features on the displays can be as small as 40 nanometers. That means that the displays can be built to show high resolutions, including high-definition imagery.

Taussig thinks HP’s displays will succeed because they don’t need expensive backlighting or frontlighting. They just need light, either sunlight or artificial light. The brighter the light, the better the display so they can be easily viewed outside. Compared to glass displays, plastic is much more flexible and can be easily stored in a roll to prevent any contamination.

hp-2HP is using inorganic amorphous silicon for its plastic displays (a finished sheet at right). The manufacturing is also cheaper because HP doesn’t have to spend as much money on cleanrooms and deal with the most dangerous chemicals. The displays can be as thin as 50 microns, or about half the thickness of a human hair, and are thus better for environmental sustainability.

The process of making the plastic displays is also much easier. While making semiconductor chips is like baking cookies with extremely high temperatures, making plastic displays is roll to roll fabrication, much like the way printing presses work by passing paper through an ink-laden spinning drum. The plastic sheets can roll through the equipment at a speed of five meters per minute.

The plastic starts out as a big sheet on a roll inside the chamber of a processing machine (below). Multiple layers of materials can be laid atop the roll, and then circuit patterns are stamped as the sheet passes through a series of rollers. The stampers make an impression on the plastic. Chemicals are used to etch away at the patterns, and the plastic is cured with ultraviolet light as the sheets roll around and around. When it’s done, technicians take out the roll and then it can be sliced, with scissors or other cutting tools, into sheets as needed for displays.

hp-4Just a couple of big processing machines (one pictured at bottom) can manufacture about 100,000-square-feet of displays in a year. HP makes the custom machines itself now, but it can share the cost with some companies that are doing roll-to-roll solar cells. The annual manufacturing capacity is plenty to satisfy a lot of initial demand. I walked through the small room where HP technicians prepared a production run. About 50 researchers in two locations are working on the project.

Taussig said the researchers are still working on improving manufacturing yields so there are fewer duds. HP is likely to offer its own e-ink electronic reading device in the next year. If HP’s displays are successful, plastic just might be poised for a comeback in electronics. A decade ago, FlexICs tried to do roll-to-roll manufacturing of high-performance plastic chips. But it had trouble with the technology and shut four years ago.

There is some competition. Plastic Logic is also trying to enter the plastic electronics market with a plastic, flexible display that Barnes & Noble will use for an electronic book reader. That device uses organic semiconductors, which have their own trade-offs in performance and use a chip-like cookie-baking approach, not roll-to-roll processing. It’s fine for e-ink applications, where consumers don’t mind if it takes a second to turn a page.

hp-5Taussig said his research has taken nine years because HP started out trying to make plastic memory chip devices first. Then, in 2004, the company got funding from the U.S. government and shifted its focus to making the displays. The Army hopes the plastic-display watches will be able to deliver vital electronic information to soldiers without weighing them down — most soldiers have to carry more than 80 pounds of material, much of it batteries.

Taussig said the roll-to-roll production process bears some resemblance to printing, which is one of HP’s core technologies. He’s optimistic about where the technology can go.

“The Amazon Kindle is just the beginning of what will be possible,” he said.