First fully 3D printed flexible OLED display

In a groundbreaking new study, researchers from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities used a bespoke printer to fully 3D print a flexible Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) display. The discovery could lead to the fact that in the future, low-cost OLED displays can be made on a large scale with 3D printers by anyone at home, rather than by technicians in expensive micro-manufacturing facilities.

OLED display technology is based on the conversion of electricity into light with the help of an organic material layer. OLEDs function as high-quality digital displays that can be designed flexibly and used in large devices such as television screens and monitors as well as in portable electronic devices such as smartphones. OLED displays have gained popularity because they are light, energy efficient, thin and flexible, and offer a wide viewing angle and high contrast ratio.

“OLED displays are typically manufactured in large, expensive, and extremely clean production facilities,” said Michael McAlpine, Kuhrmeyer Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota and lead author of the study. “We wanted to see if we could condense all of that and print an OLED display on our tabletop 3D printer that was custom built and cost about the same as a Tesla Model S.”

The group had previously tried to 3D print OLED displays but had problems with the uniformity of the light-emitting layers. Other groups sometimes printed displays, but also relied on spin-coating or thermal evaporation to deposit certain components and create functional devices.

In this new study, the University of Minnesota research team combined two different printing processes to print the six layers of components that resulted in a fully 3D printed, flexible display with organic light emitting diodes. The electrodes, connections, insulation and encapsulation were printed using the extrusion process, while the active layers were sprayed on with the same 3D printer at room temperature. The prototype display was about 1.5 inches on each side and had 64 pixels. Every pixel worked and indicated light.

“I thought I was getting something, but maybe not a fully functional display,” said Ruitao Su, lead author of the study and a 2020 graduate mechanical engineer from the University of Minnesota who is now a postdoctoral researcher at MIT. “But then it turned out that all the pixels were working, and I was able to view the text I designed. My first reaction was, ‘It’s real! I couldn’t sleep all night.”

Su said the 3D printed display is also flexible and can be packaged in an encapsulating material, which could make it useful for a variety of applications.

“The device demonstrated relatively stable emission over 2,000 flex cycles, suggesting that fully 3D-printed OLEDs could potentially be used for important soft electronics and wearable device applications,” said Su.

According to the researchers, the next steps are to 3D print OLED displays with higher resolution and improved brightness.

“The nice thing about our research is that manufacturing is built in, so we’re not talking about a vision in 20 years,” says McAlpine. “This is something we actually made in the lab, and it’s not hard to imagine that within a few years this could be transferred to a small portable printer to print all kinds of displays at home or on the go.”

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