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Development of a modular, integrated and autonomous ‘Factory-in-a-box’ production line for manufacturing high volumes of Flexible integrated LogIC circuits

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - FlexLogIC (Development of a modular, integrated and autonomous ‘Factory-in-a-box’ production line for manufacturing high volumes of Flexible integrated LogIC circuits)

Reporting period: 2017-03-01 to 2018-04-30

At a fraction of the price of conventional silicon ICs, PragmatIC’s products enable a vast range of new applications: from intelligent packaging of fast-moving consumer goods, to wireless traceability of documents for security and identification. Now PragmatIC is developing FlexLogIC: a unique “fab-in-a-box” model for low capital, high capacity manufacturing of FlexICs, with support from the EU’s H2020 SME Instrument funding.

While the traditional silicon industry is oriented towards delivering highly complex electronic products, FlexLogIC provides a radically different approach aligned to the mass-market volumes and low-cost requirements of embedding flexible electronics in everyday objects.

HIGH CAPACITY WITH LOW UPFRONT INVESTMENT
Establishing new silicon IC fabrication capacity requires extensive capital outlay, in the billions of dollars per fab. It is also a time-consuming process, typically requiring at least 2 years to build and commission a fab. Ramping up global capacity for trillions of smart objects using a conventional silicon IC foundry model would therefore be both cost prohibitive and high risk.

FlexLogIC addresses this manufacturing gap since the upfront investment costs are several orders of magnitude lower: between 100 and 1000 times lower capital expense than a silicon IC fab of a similar capacity. FlexLogIC systems can also be delivered more rapidly on a build-to-order basis under six months.

This dramatic reduction in both cost and time opens up the potential for highly scalable FlexIC capacity and enables a more distributed production model. Compared with silicon ICs, where a few very large foundry companies produce most of the world’s supply, the FlexLogIC model can support a large number of manufacturers across multiple application sectors, geographies and industry supply chains.

FULLY AUTOMATED SELF-CONTAINED PRODUCTION
As well as enabling a shift to more distributed regional manufacturing, FlexLogIC also opens up the potential for non-electronics companies to become active participants in the supply chain for flexible electronic solutions.

Whereas silicon IC fabs require extremely sophisticated operational expertise in relevant process technologies, the fully automated nature of FlexLogIC means that it can be operated by companies with a comparatively low level of electronics expertise. The detailed material recipes, end-to-end process flow, in-line quality monitoring and feedback control loops are implemented within the equipment and software design, to ensure reliable production without operator intervention.

The physical footprint of FlexLogIC is also significantly smaller than a conventional silicon fab, and its self-contained nature allows installation in a wide range of manufacturing environments – for example, at front-of-line in label and packaging facilities, providing on-site just-in-time FlexIC production and eliminating months’ worth of supply chain inventory.

ACCELERATED TIME-TO-MARKET
FlexLogIC production cycle time is under a day, compared with over a month for a silicon fab. The upfront design costs are also orders of magnitudes lower, meaning that new flexible electronic solutions can be developed, tested, and rolled out on shortened timescales and with dramatically reduced risk.

When combined with on-site integration into the downstream manufacturing supply chain, this enables a radically new model for the rapid introduction of electronics into smart objects.


OBJECTIVES
Key objectives within the EU H2020 project include:
1. Specification, design and development of individual modular functions suitable for automation, and to meet annual production capacity of 1Bn flexICs with excellent process uniformity, repeatability and low defectivity
2. Automation design to enable multiple product designs, sampling, full production tracking and process data logging
3. Realisation of entry-level module (ELMo) within target footprint <200m2, throughput and cost-structure
4. Validated life-cycle cost savings for integrated production-line
5. Commercial framework for FlexLogIC sales
6. Marketing, PR and customer trials
1. Specification, design and development of individual modular functions suitable for automation, and to meet annual production capacity of 1Bn flexICs with excellent process uniformity, repeatability and low defectivity

During the second phase of the project we have further validated the FlexLogIC model. An entry-level system is capable of producing >1Bn FlexICs pa.

2. Automation design to enable multiple product designs, sampling, full production tracking and process data logging

Full system architecture has been implemented including automation hardware and scheduling control software. The system is very flexible supporting multiple product types and full production tracking. New designs can be moved through to production in a matter of weeks (compared to ~months to ~years for a silicon fab). As the system matures we expect to further reduce this new design cycle to <1 week.

3. Realisation of entry-level module (ELMo) within target footprint <200m2, throughput and cost-structure

All of the individual process modules for ELMo have been delivered, installed and commissioned. The final footprint for the entry-level module is <200m2.


4. Validated life-cycle cost savings for integrated production-line

The project has shown that significant savings relative to manual batch processing can be achieved by the fully-automated system.


5. Commercial framework for FlexLogIC sales

During the second period of the project PragmatIC has completed the first installation of FlexLogIC. This demonstration has supported a variety of commercial discussions with customers.


6. Marketing, PR and customer trials

The project has been actively promoted at a range of conferences and customer discussions. A website has been maintained along with specific FlexLogIC branding. A series of press releases have taken place in the second period of the project to coincide with key milestones.
The FlexLogIC system represents a significant shift both from the state-of-the-art in printed electronics and to the established silicon foundry model. FlexLogIC enables distributed manufacturing by supporting a range of industries to enter electronics manufacturing without extremely high upfront investment (€Mns vs €Bns) or specialist knowledge. During the second period of the project we have successfully implemented the first FlexLogIC system (entry-level tool), reconfirmed the cost models and develop a more comprehensive commercialisation strategy. This has further reinforced our view that FlexLogIC will be a significant disruption to the status quo, and will have initial impact in the areas of RFID, NFC and the Internet-of-Things for applications such as consumer packaging and anti-counterfeit. Commercial traction has continued to grow within these sectors, and we have customers ready for the ramp-up of production enabled by FlexLogIC during 2H-18. From a societal perspective, PragmatIC is already creating high-technology jobs and infrastructure in the North-East of England (an underperforming economic area). We expect the FlexLogIC capability to drive further manufacturing activities within the EU, driving towards more onshoring of high-value manufacturing and associated jobs within the supply-chain.