Flex­i­ble OLEDs il­lu­mi­nate a new era of light­ing

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - SCIENCE AT WORK - PETER NOWAK

OTI Lu­mion­ics, a Toronto startup, has shown it can em­bed wafer-thin OLED lights in the cover of a mag­a­zine. Soon, they could be part of any sur­face or screen

The next big step in tech­nol­ogy could very well be a flex­i­ble one – or so OTI Lu­mion­ics Inc. is hop­ing. The Toronto-based startup is de­vel­op­ing light­weight ma­te­ri­als that can be used to make bend­able light­ing and dis­plays. The com­pany’s am­bi­tions are lofty: To change how con­sumer goods are de­signed and man­u­fac­tured.

“The re­al­ity is the ad­vances in soft­ware, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, data pro­cess­ing and stor­age all rely on un­der­ly­ing ad­vance­ments in com­put­ing hard­ware – and all of those are made pos­si­ble by new ma­te­ri­als,” says Michael He­lander, com­pany pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive.

“The change in form fac­tor of the tech­nol­ogy is what al­lows a to­tally new way to make prod­ucts.”

OTI Lu­mion­ics, founded in 2011 by Mr. He­lander and three co-founders, Zhibin Wang, Jacky Qiu, and Zhenghong Lu, is cur­rently work­ing with large con­sumer elec­tron­ics man­u­fac­tur­ers in Asia to­ward that goal.

Sev­eral of those com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing South Korea’s Sam­sung and LG, have al­ready brought curved tele­vi­sions to mar­ket and are ex­pected to dou­ble-down on flex­i­ble dis­play tech­nol­ogy in the com­ing years.

Sam­sung, for ex­am­ple, has said it is work­ing on a bend­able smart­phone with a fold­able screen, with a pos­si­ble re­lease com­ing as soon as this year. The main ben­e­fit of such a phone would be that its flex­i­ble screen would be dif­fi­cult to break.

Mr. He­lander says he is un­able to name his com­pany’s part­ners due to the se­cre­tive na­ture of the in­dus­try, but he ex­pects that to change within the next 18 to 24 months.

OTI Lu­mion­ics, which has 30 em­ploy­ees, re­ceived $5.7-mil­lion from Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Tech­nol­ogy Canada in 2015 to de­velop a pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity ca­pa­ble of mak­ing high vol­umes of or­ganic light-emit­ting diode (OLED) pan­els. (OLEDs con­vert elec­tric­ity into light us­ing car­bon-based or­ganic dye mol­e­cules such as cop­per ph­thalo­cya­nine, which is com­monly found in blue jeans. Be­cause they use or­ganic ma­te­ri­als rather than inor­ganic semi­con­duc­tors such as gal­lium ni­tride, OLEDs are seen as be­ing more ef­fi­cient and en­vi­ron­men­tally-friendly.)

With that fa­cil­ity up and run­ning, the key to the next era of prod­uct and man­u­fac­tur­ing de­sign will be speed­ing up ma­te­ri­als re­search and pro­duc­tion, Mr. He­lander says.

Tra­di­tion­ally, that process takes years be­cause it re­quires many dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als to be phys­i­cally tested. Hard­ware ad­vances are there­fore con­sid­er­ably slower than soft­ware de­vel­op­ment, which can move at light­ning speed.

OTI Lu­mion­ics is in­stead us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to sim­u­late much of its test­ing, which elim­i­nates dead ends more quickly. The com­pany can then phys­i­cally test ma­te­ri­als that win out in sim­u­la­tions in its pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity.

“We can fil­ter down a lot of can­di­dates that will prob­a­bly fail and fo­cus on just a few that have a very high prob­a­bil­ity of suc­cess,” Mr. He­lander says.

“Even large chem­i­cal com­pa­nies don’t have that ca­pa­bil­ity in­ter­nally and we’ve found that to be a unique ad­van­tage. It helps us get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how the ma­te­ri­als will per­form in a mass pro­duc­tion en­vi­ron­ment for a flex­i­ble dis­play, for ex­am­ple.”

OTI Lu­mion­ics showed off its ca­pa­bil­ity ear­lier this year by em­bed­ding its flex­i­ble, ul­tra-thin OLED lights in the front cover of Fron­tier, a mag­a­zine pub­lished by the Toronto-based de­sign com­pany of the same name.

The cover, fronting an is­sue fo­cus­ing on the theme of dark­ness, fea­tured a small rec­tan­gu­lar sec­tion that lit up when touched.

The project, done in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Fron­tier and Toron­to­based printer Flash Re­pro­duc­tions, took about a year and had a to­tal print run of 1,500 copies.

The big­gest ob­sta­cle wasn’t in­sert­ing the OLED light it­self into the cover, but rather the bat­tery to power it. OTI Lu­mion­ics took sev­eral months to de­velop a flex­i­ble bat­tery, at which point the project be­came fea­si­ble.

“If you see a big tell­tale bat­tery, it kind of ru­ins the il­lu­sion,” says Rich Paup­tit, Flash Re­pro­duc­tions pres­i­dent and owner. “When they came back with the bat­tery, I thought, ‘Now we’ve got some­thing.’ ”

The tech­nol­ogy is there, but the cost isn’t yet. Mr. Paup­tit says the cost of pro­duc­ing the cover alone was about triple that of the en­tire mag­a­zine. He ex­pects that to change over time as costs fall, at which point flex­i­ble light­ing could be­come the next big thing, es­pe­cially in prod­uct pack­ag­ing.

“There’s more of a hunger to catch peo­ple’s at­ten­tion there,” he says.

In­dus­try an­a­lysts do in­deed ex­pect a quick drop, which means ul­tra-thin bend­able light­ing and dis­plays may be about to go from cu­riosi­ties to ac­tu­ally use­ful prod­ucts.

“The prob­lem with flex­i­ble dis­plays has al­ways been be­ing able to pro­duce it in mass quan­ti­ties. We’re about to get there,” says Jean Philippe Bouchard, vice-pres­i­dent of mo­bil­ity and con­sumer re­search at IDC Canada.

“There is a mar­ket there, I don’t think it’s just a gim­mick. This is more con­crete. Man­u­fac­tur­ers are go­ing to find out­lets for those screens.”

So far the mar­ket has con­sisted mostly of curved tele­vi­sions, which con­sumers have largely shrugged off as gim­micks.

But that is likely to change once the un­der­ly­ing ma­te­ri­als be­come cheap enough to en­able new modes of think­ing about prod­uct de­sign. That could in turn spur the creation of pre­vi­ously unimag­ined goods.

“Every­one will say, ‘The TV I have to­day is good enough, why would I want some­thing bet­ter?’” Mr. He­lander says.

“Then you give them the bet­ter prod­uct and they use it for a week and they go back and look at the prod­uct they were us­ing, and they say, ‘Oh my gosh, how was I ever able to live with this?’”


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