NEXT Biometrics and Innolux invest in mass production of flexible fingerprint sensors

August 22, 2016 - 

NEXT Biometrics and Innolux are in a hurry to get NEXT’s flexible fingerprint sensors into millions of smart cards, as the emerging details and ramifications of their recently announced investment partnership make clear. Flexible fingerprint sensors have always been the ultimate target of NEXT Biometrics, and the partnership to scale production capacity of the sensors represents a major change for a company known just a few years ago largely for Dell’s use of its sensors in laptops and tablets.

The two companies have long partnered on the flexible sensor project, with prototypes manufactured in time for the April announcement of a high-volume order of NEXT’s fingerprint sensor for use in smart cards. NEXT CEO Tore Etholm-Idsøe noted Innolux’ experience in resolving the issues associated with ramping-up new production formats.

Etholm-Idsøe told Biometric Update in an interview that NEXT’s previously stated production capacity target of 2 million flexible fingerprint sensor units per month in 2017 will likely be met in the first half of the year.

The company is acquiring a cutting machine manufactured by Corning, and a coating machine, as part of the agreement with Innolux. The step from a working prototype, to an order estimated at 650,000 units, to manufacturing millions of units implies substantial market demand.

When asked if that demand would come from the existing customer or a relatively soon-to-be-announced new one, Etholm-Idsøe said: “We expect increases with this customer, we also expect announcements in other segments in 2017. The early adopting markets in smart cards have proven to be larger than we originally estimated. There are more of them, and they are larger.”

Providing those markets with flexible sensors requires NEXT and Innolux to innovate a process which begins with the sensors being manufactured just as if they were ridged. At the end of the process, several new steps are added, in which the thin polysilicon layer is lifted from the glass substrate, and placed on a new substrate. Demand is already strong enough to support scaling the process for mass production.

“The projects that we are now involved in have higher volumes and have value propositions that are very attractive, meaning that it is possible for us and our partners to deliver the product even at early stages at reasonable commercial terms.”

Under the investment partnership Innolux is investing in several machines, and the manufacture of NEXT’s flexible fingerprint sensor could represent a step towards the future capability to make flexible displays. The investment in scaling production will have its own reward for both companies, as well.

“These will be somewhat expensive to manufacture when you have small volumes, and they will fall steeply in cost as the volumes increase.”

Given the goal of 10 million units per month in 2018, margins that are attractive now could soon be stunning. While Etholm-Idsøe says that the primary markets for fingerprint-enabled smart cards are not those many Western consumers would think of, a recent survey found that two-thirds of US credit card users would pay for the security protection of a built-in fingerprint reader.

Achieving its production goals, and then selling all those sensors, will mark not just a major step for NEXT, but a step towards biometric authentication ubiquity in diverse markets.

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About Chris Burt

Chris Burt is a writer and contributor to Biometric Update. He has also written nonfiction about information technology, dramatic arts, sports culture, and fantasy basketball, as well as fiction about a doomed astronaut. He lives in Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter @AFakeChrisBurt."