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HP Labs sees a great future in plastics

The PC manufacturer's Information Displays Lab is working on a kind of plastic display designed to replace glass displays in the next 10 years.

Hewlett-Packard makes 65 million devices every year that sport a glass display.

That--the glass part, at least--is coming to an end in the next decade, according to Carl Taussig, the head of HP Labs' Information Surfaces Lab.

"In 10 years, glass will be as much a memory of displays as cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are today," Taussig said during a tour of his lab Friday.

So why plastic? Because plastic substrates--and their manufacturing process--are cheaper than the glass substrates currently used to make your laptop display or monitor. The thin films of plastic they're using are 40 times lighter than glass.

It's important to a company such as HP, the No. 1 producer and seller of personal computers in the world, to figure out how to reduce costs in making the parts for their laptops and other devices. Displays represent roughly a third of the cost of a standard business notebook.

So Taussig and his team are working on a process that uses superthin plastic 50 microns thick (half the thickness of a piece of paper). Because plastic is flexible, it can be put on spools and put into a machine that etches resistors--the electronics that help render an image onto a display--in a process that almost resembles the way a newspaper is printed, called "roll to roll."

Manufacturing this flexible material for display on a roll is much faster and therefore cheaper than the current batch process, through which giant pieces of glass are moved by mammoth robotic arms in factories the size of some small cities.

Check out the photo gallery of some of the ways HP is looking to use flexible displays, starting in 2011, with a project for the U.S. military.