But top physicist has concerns over UK support for manufacturing

The crucial relationship between academia and manufacturing has been highlighted by polymer pioneer, Professor Sir Richard Friend FREng.

A video of the lecture is available on  RAEng TV: Prime Innovator V

Speaking at The Royal Academy of Engineering’s fifth lecture in the Prime Innovators series, Sir Richard told the audience how collaborations between manufacturing, industry and academia can play an important role in inspiring discoveries in university laboratories as well as enabling the establishment of commercial technology spinout companies.

However, having set up a number of manufacturing companies, Sir Richard explained that the move to base his second enterprise outside the UK came down to the support, rapid start-up of manufacturing and the trained workforce available in Germany. “I worry the UK cannot manage all three of those essential ingredients simultaneously,” he said.

Sir Richard holds the Cavendish Professorship of Physics in the University of Cambridge, and works on the engineering of organic carbon-based materials into semiconductors that can be used in a wide range of devices such as light-emitting diodes and solar cells, and coated or printed over large areas as polymers.

Sir Richard, who was recently named within The Times’ top 20 most influential British scientists and engineers, highlighted the sometimes serendipitous nature of research when his team discovered organic light emitting diodes (LEDs) “by chance” 20 years ago.

He said: “As soon as we got it to work we rushed off and filed a patent, which was an unusual thing to do at any university at the time and Cambridge didn’t have the funds to pay for it - so we forked out. But inventions don’t prosper if they’re left lounging in universities.”

The research led to the creation of a spinout company, Cambridge Display Technology, which won the Academy’s MacRobert Award in 2002 and now employs more than 100 people.

The discovery also led to his team building contacts with Epson that led to the development of inkjet technology being used to print semi-conductor solutions just like ink, and provided his lab with “new toys” and “new ways” of doing things.

“The idea and process of ink jet printing turned out to be very important and partly came from a contact and collaboration. The partnership with Epson meant ink jet technology was available in the research environment,” he said.

As well as Cambridge Display Technology, Sir Richard also helped create a second spinout, Plastic Logic, which is working on ‘Que’, the thinnest and lightest e-reader on the market, produced using electronic-ink technology with the transistor backplane made with a plastic semiconductor formed onto a flexible plastic substrate.

Sir Richard believes that organic LEDs, which are now used for smartphone screens because of their thinner, brighter and faster qualities than crystal screens, will become the dominant technology for small screens and inkjet technology will become “very important” for larger displays.

The pioneering physicist has recently created a third company, Eight19, specialising in organic solar cells, which could be used to power our homes more cheaply in the future.

He added: “The benefit of organic cells is that they’re cheap to make and the performance is ok. They’re only about eight per cent energy efficient at the moment but there’s to nothing to say that that can’t be improved.”

Notes for editors

The Royal Academy of Engineering

Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Ed Holmes at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7766 0655