Oct. 27, 2011 (TSR) – The Norwegian company Thin Film Electronics ASA (“Thinfilm”) together with Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), a Xerox company, announced last week that they have produced a working prototype of the world’s first printed non-volatile memory device addressed with complementary organic circuits, the organic equivalent of CMOS circuitry. Thinfilm Addressable MemoryTM consists of Thinfilm’s printed memory and PARC’s transistors.
The device provides a low-cost way to read, write, and process small amounts of data. In addition, the added logic increases the amount of data that can be stored.
Thinfilm Addressable Memory combines Thinfilm’s polymer-based memory technology with PARC’s transistor technology using complementary pairs of n-type and p-type transistors to construct the circuits. The addition of the integrated circuits makes the roll-to-roll printed Thinfilm Memory addressable by printable logic.
Printed circuits, made of organic inks, operate far more slowly and with less memory capacity than their silicon counterparts, but they can be made for pennies. Printed circuits can also go where silicon currently cannot: wrapping around a child’s toy, for example, or conforming to the curve of a soldier’s helmet.
This is a significant step toward the vision of a world filled with the “Internet of things”, where everything is connected via a smart tag. These smart tags require the commercial availability of devices that:
• have rewritable memory,
• are low cost,
• support integration with sensors and other electronic components,
• are environmentally friendly,
• and can be produced using high volume, roll-to-roll printing.
The demonstrated prototype, rewritable memory with logic circuitry, will meet all of these requirements.
PARC specializes in designing full-featured systems for clients’ applications. These systems will benefit from Thinfilm’s unique non-volatile ferroelectric polymer memory technology because power consumption is negligible and no connection to external power is required to retain information.
Earlier this year, Thinfilm showed off a handheld device capable of reading cards printed with circuits that store 20 bits of data. In May, the company announced engineering deals with two major toy manufacturers who plan to use its printable memory.
“We have demonstrated that one can address an array of memory cells using printed logic. This opens up new fields of use, as now addressable memory can be combined with sensors, power sources and antennas to power smart applications,” said Davor Sutija, Thinfilm CEO. “This prototype is a demonstration that low-cost printed integrated systems and the tagging of everyday objects is possible, enabling Thinfilm’s vision of ‘memory everywhere’.”
Adding logic to memory is crucial to increasing the storage capacity of the device, explains Janos Veres, manager of printed electronics at PARC. “We really needed to have a printed logic array that lets us address memory and increase bit count,” he says. Memory arrays are split up into rows and columns. To select a row or column, you need a logic circuit, Veres says. “The power of this demonstration is we’ve shown that you can address rows and columns with this technology,” he says. “The next step will be building bigger memory.”
One of the major advances of this prototype is the development of printed logic circuits that are analogous to so-called CMOS circuits in silicon. CMOS stands for complementary-metal oxide-semiconductor—a combination of two key kinds of transistors, called an n-type and a p-type.
The prototype is a “building block” that can be used for a number of different applications, says Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEX, a research firm. “There has been a huge effort on printing transistors globally,” Das says, “but very poor effort on making useful building blocks like this, which can be used horizontally for many applications.” He says, this is “very good news.”
Thinfilm offers low-cost, low-power printed electronics for high-volume consumer applications with two main products: Thinfilm Memory and Thinfilm System products.
Thinfilm memory products include 20-bit Thinfilm Memory in production today for consumer applications, such as toys and games, loyalty cards, info-kiosks and the Thinfilm Addressable Memory under development, available in 2012. The development of the Thinfilm Addressable Memory was partially funded by an industrial development grant from Innovation Norway.
System products are integrated systems that combine Thinfilm’s memory technology with other printed components. The target markets for Thinfilm Addressable Memory system products include NFC (Near Field Communications) tags, now available in Android phones, which enable device to device communication and have been predicted to, one day, be on all new objects. Thinfilm also targets sensor tags and disposable price labels. The addressable memory can be integrated with other printed components, such as antennas and sensors, to create fully printed systems for interaction with everyday objects and the “Internet of things” where the temperature of food and drugs are monitored or retail items are tracked individually rather than by pallet, container or truckload with a simple tap of a NFC enabled phone.
Thinfilm CEO Davor Sutija is interested in integrating the new device with a number of other printed electronics, particularly sensors. “You can see if a sensor has hit a particular threshold and record the number of times in memory,” he says. Sutija says the technology could record if a vaccine has been exposed to incorrect handling practices, or if food or other items that need refrigeration have gotten too warm. It could also power price tags that change depending on the time of day.
These sorts of applications are only possible, however, if manufacturing costs can be kept down. Thinfilm has partnered with Inktec, a leading developer of inks, to make the logic and memory devices in bulk. According to Sutija, his company’s 20-bit memory sells for five cents. Within the next three to five years, he expects, the more advanced systems will cost pennies. “Three to six cents isn’t hard to envision, given the scalability of printing,” he says.
“This announcement is a significant step forward for the printed electronics industry,” said Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx. “Having both printed memory and printed transistors to address the memory is a fundamental ‘building block’ that has applicability to, and enables an enormous number of applications across a myriad of markets.”
Using printing to manufacture electronics minimizes the number of process steps, which in turn, dramatically reduces manufacturing costs and lowers the environmental impact compared to traditional semiconductor processes. Thinfilm devices are thinner than traditional silicon devices and can be produced in form factors as slim as a strand of hair.