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Plextronics: New Manufacturing Facility Focuses on Commercialization of Printable Electronic Devices

Reducing American reliance on oil and developing alternative sources of energy–these aren’t new topics, but they’ve taken on a special urgency in recent years. Pittsburgh-based Plextronics is one of the Pennsylvania companies at the forefront of this new drive, with an innovative technology–and a pioneering attitude–that has tremendous commercial potential.

Plextronics

With Plextronics technology, printed solar cells can be created for about one-fifth of the price of traditional solar technology.

Plextronics makes and tests substances that produce light, conduct electricity and collect energy from the sun. The company is best known for its conductive inks that will enable the mass production of printed electronic devices, such as low-cost organic solar cells and high-efficiency lighting.

“Traditional silicon-based solar cells are very expensive,” says Andy Hannah, CEO. While solar cell technology has steadily improved, a substantial leap is required to achieve costs of $1 per watt or less–the tipping point at which solar power can be turned profitably to broader commercial use. “With our technology, printed solar cells can be created for about one-fifth of the price of traditional solar technology.”

New Manufacturing Facility

In January 2009, Plextronics unveiled its first manufacturing development line, the D-Line. The D-Line is a small-scale manufacturing facility that allows the company to discover and fine-tune the processes needed to translate its products to commercial applications. Applications might include a TV screen that can be folded and stored on a shelf, or a wearable device that can fit on a sleeve to display maps, powered by a solar panel sewn to a backpack.

The company was founded in 2002 by Andy Hannah and Dr. Richard McCullough, who both taught at Carnegie Mellon University. McCullough’s research through the 1990s on inherently conductive polymers, plastics that create electricity, helped lay the foundation for Plextronics. Plextronics has grown substantially since then and now employs 67 people.

Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP) has supported Plextronics since its inception, long before economic circumstances and global warming put alternative energy at the forefront. BFTP has made five investments in the company totaling $1.1 million. For its first few years, Plextronics focused on the research and development aspect of developing their technology. “BFTP and the state of Pennsylvania have been very supportive of our R&D activities, and we are about to start commercializing our product with customers,” says Hannah.

Three Primary Target Markets

Plextronics sees three primary markets for its technology. One is the “off-grid” market, or the developing world, where many people do not have access to reliable power. In those areas, researchers are using Plextronics technology to make solar panels that will provide basic energy needs such as light and fans.

Another market is “on-grid” power, or solar farms. In deserts, solar farms with thousands of solar panels are cropping up, and Plextronics technology would be used there to create a type of clean, alternative energy power plant. The third market is green commercial buildings, where Plextronics technology would be put to use in solar-energy-gathering roof shingles, siding and windows.

With energy efficiency a national priority, and President Obama’s push for smarter, clean technologies, Plextronics is well positioned for even more outstanding growth. The company vision is to enable 15 billion printed electronic devices by 2015. “Given the needs for alternative energy, there are a lot of opportunities there for us, and we continue to work on cost-efficient printed solar and electronic solutions,” says Sean Rollman, CFO of Plextronics.

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This article was featured in
Keynotes May, 2009
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