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updated 8:35 AM BST, Oct 24, 2014
Technology and life sciences news from the Cambridge cluster

Atmel's future touch screen technology to be manufactured in Cambridge

Close up of CIT electronics reelConductive Inkjet Technology is looking for a site in Cambridge where it can begin high volume manufacturing of its innovative touch screen technology. It follows a positive reception from mobile phone manufacturers of the technology including an early nomination for a new concept smartphone through exclusive partner, Atmel.

First production is expected to commence before the end of this year at the existing CIT site, however, with production volume set to increase rapidly thereafter, a new facility will be needed to produce the high volumes of photosensitive film CIT's parent company, Carclo, believes will be required to keep pace with high expected demand.

The touch screen technology being developed for Atmel is produced in two stages, the manufacturing of the film and then converting it into a material mesh.

If Atmel uses the CIT process for all its future mobile touch screen work, as CIT CEO, Chris Malley believes it could, the first part of the process, film production, could conceivably happen entirely in Cambridge, with the second element of the process being taken elsewhere.

This means Cambridge could potentially manufacture all the speciality film Atmel - one of the world's leading providers of capacitive sensing technology for the mobile phone market - requires for the new touch screens.

Plans for production scale-up are well advanced with key equipment already on order, however, a site for the new manufacturing operation which is due to be in place by the middle of 2012, is yet to be decided, but the Cambridge region will feature according to CIT chief executive, Chris Malley.

"We do not have the capacity in our existing facility to take the market share we would like to take," said Malley. "However, capacity expansion for the first part of the process, the specialist films, is likely to take place in Cambridge.

"It won't be at the existing CIT location, but somewhere close by would be most logical," he added.

Atmel Corporation has an exclusive 10 year partnership with Carclo for the CIT touch technology, a deal which includes a $10 million up-front payment.

Atmel's substantial interest in CIT centres around the Cambridge outfit's fine line technology (FLT), a breakthrough technology which uses relatively low cost reel-to-reel production methods to produce a material mesh for use in touch sensitive devices.

This mesh has caused reflective issues in the past, but has been mostly overcome with the width of the lines produced lowered from eight to sub-four microns.

CIT began working with Atmel on touch sensor devices following a partnership agreement announced in December 2009.

Atmel's satisfaction with the project led them to sign a further contract at the end of 2010 giving them 10 years of exclusivity on the CIT technology in return for significant up-front payments and demanding volume and revenue targets.

The potential of the technology is immense and the Atmel deal has made CIT the most important element of Carclo's entire operations.

Malley says Atmel's interest should see the touch technology being offered to pretty much all the mobile devices it supplies.

"This is relevant to all Atmel's technology," said Malley. "The whole reason they're launching product to market is they believe it is more powerful than their existing technology."

The implications of this to Carclo and CIT's revenues are huge. In its annual report Carclo states that the last year has seen a significant change in how it is viewed by the financial market, which is mainly due to the CIT work.

The report adds that shareholders and investors are looking increasingly at the transformational opportunity presented by CIT's Fine Line Technology in touch screen applications.

"This is understandable because the profit potential of this one opportunity alone exceeds Carclo's current profitability."

For CIT and Cambridge it means a 50 per cent increase in staff and a new manufacturing facility and while Carclo refers to the touch screen market opportunity alone, CIT's technology, which enables high speed printing or patterning of pure metallic circuits on plastic film, has other potentially huge market opportunities.

These include printed electronics, organic LED lighting devices (again replacing ITO) and organic photovoltaic devices, for which partnerships already exist.