Thursday, 19 August 2010

Second-generation printed electronics

Swansea University's Centre for Printing and Coating leads the way in printing electronics on to any traditional printing surface, according to this article by Sarah Arnott in the business pages of the Independent. "The prize is potentially enormous", Arnott writes. "Alongside massive revenue opportunities, it is also a rare chance to claw back competitive advantage from the East. Compared with traditional printing, printed electronics are vastly expensive, because of the high cost of materials. But by shifting the high cost from labour to materials, the structural advantage of China or India is eroded."

But Germany, the Netherlands and USA are in the same position, and the article implies that the UK lead is no more than a year. The government and British industry should learn lessons from the experience of 1930s Hungarian refugee Paul Eisler. He fled the fascists in 1936 and immediately offered his invention of the printed circuit to his new hosts in Britain, first to the radio and electronics industry (he already had a working radio incorporating a PCB as a demonstration) then, when war was imminent, to the Air Ministry as, if I remember correctly, part of a bomb-aiming device. The invention was belatedly taken up here, but it was the US who realised the benefits after the war - and apparently largely reneged on payments under Eisler's patent.

There is a Conservative mantra that government cannot - should not - pick winners. However, it is in the best position to act as honest broker to bring together the companies representing the various technologies in what is already reckoned to be a winning development, and perhaps to act as guarantor for some of the smaller SMEs in these days when banks are loth to lend.

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