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Nanoelectronics April 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

The Emergence of Plastic Liquid-Crystal Displays

Why is this topic significant?

Flexible electronic applications appear to be on the cusp of making a major commercial breakthrough. Recent research demonstrates that liquid-crystal displays—the display technology that currently finds most widespread use—could also be a commercially viable option for flexible electronic devices.

Description

In February 2015, the British flexible electronics SME FlexEnable released details of the research that is resulting from its partnership with the major German liquid-crystal-player Merck Chemicals. The collaboration is planning to advance the commercialization of plastic liquid-crystal displays (LCDs)—constructing a display that exploits organic transistors on plastic substrates and that has no glass components. According to a FlexEnable press release, this display is "the world's first plastic LCD with active-matrix in-plane switching." Combining the company's organic thin-film-transistor technology with Merck's liquid-crystal and organic-semiconductor materials enables this LCD to compete with other technologies that also have the potential for flexible applications.

Implications

This development could have significant implications for the development of the market for flexible electronic devices. Plastic LCDs exhibit a range of advantages over their rigid counterparts. For example, the removal of glass from the displays renders devices shatterproof and enables them to be both flexible and conformal—creating a completely new market for innovative products and services. Plastic LCDs also have the potential to be up to ten times thinner and lighter than rigid equivalents—an extremely important issue when considering high-volume consumer markets. Manufacturing benefits include the superior quality and yield that result from the use of organic transistor technology—potentially enabling low-cost options for the high-volume fabrication of commercial products. However, the FlexEnable/Merck development is just at the demonstrator stage and will require a significant amount of additional work before commercialization becomes possible.

Impacts/Disruptions

The potential arrival of flexible LCDs could have a major impact on the display industry. OLED technology—which shares many, if not all, of the advantages of plastic LCDs—is far more advanced in terms of flexible applications. However, the dominance of LCD technology in the market for large-form-factor displays—buoyed largely by the advances enabled by quantum-dot systems—means that many companies exhibit a vested interest in sustaining the commercial success of liquid-crystal applications. The continuing commercial success of LCDs is of critical importance to a number of sectors of the value chain—and perhaps none more so than the supply of liquid-crystal materials. Merck—the "world's leading manufacturer of materials needed for LCDs"—has a particularly strong interest in how the advent of flexible electronics applications could disrupt its current business model. Major display manufacturers also have an interest in the prospects of liquid-crystal technology. After investing extremely large sums of money in developing a variety of products that require liquid crystals to function, these players will attempt to maximize this source of revenue before switching to alternative technologies.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Displays, consumer electronics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Partnership Could Aid OLED-Display Commercialization

Why is this topic significant?

The financial advantages for the proponents of dominant display technologies are significant. Recent developments in the field of organic light-emitting-diode technology could affect the future of the display market.

Description

In January 2015, Kateeva—the manufacturer of production equipment for OLED technologies—announced details of a nonexclusive agreement with the major Japanese chemicals player Sumitomo. The partnership aims to advance the commercialization of OLED televisions by combining Kateeva's YieldJet printing technology—which the February 2014 Viewpoints discusses in detail—with Sumitomo's inks. The collaboration plans to resolve issues related to the high-volume manufacture of large-form-factor displays—driving down the price of televisions and encouraging consumer adoption. Kateeva is currently working on two distinct YieldJet platforms. The first, YieldJet Flex, finds use in the production of flexible devices, and the company hopes that this system will be producing commercially available products by the end of 2015. Kateeva will debut the second YieldJet platform—which it claims will cut manufacturing costs for television-size displays by a factor of two—later in 2015.

Implications

With this deal, Kateeva and Sumitomo are aiming to advance the commercialization of OLED displays—particularly for the television market—by providing large electronics manufacturers with production-ready tools with which to develop commercial products. According to Kateeva, "customers will benefit from the assurance of a tested and optimized solution." The two key ingredients in the fabrication of OLED devices are the equipment and the materials. Kateeva and Sumitomo are two of the leading players from each of these areas, and by joining forces, they could achieve a strategic advantage in an industry that is currently undergoing rapid growth. The strength of the partnership could, in turn, encourage electronics manufacturers to invest in OLED technology across a range of platforms. Kateeva also states that the partnership is "intentionally nonexclusive" and that its more general aim is to "equip the global display industry with novel tools and technologies to help mainstream OLED TVs." The collaboration appears to be making an effort to advance the commercialization of OLED technology as a whole, rather than solely focusing on its own interests. However, this strategy is clearly not completely altruistic—generating a larger market for OLED devices in general could prove more beneficial in the long term.

Impacts/Disruptions

The display industry is highly competitive. Liquid-crystal displays (supported by quantum-dot technology) currently dominate the market for large-form-factor displays. However, cost-effective OLEDs have the potential to disrupt this sector of the electronics industry. High prices remain the key barrier for further commercialization of large OLED displays. Cheaper devices—enabled by more efficient manufacturing abilities—could lower prices and make it possible for OLED technology to compete.

OLEDs also have the potential to affect other industries such as photovoltaics and lighting. The ability to make flexible OLED devices is also likely to result in a range of innovative applications—from wearable electronics to rollable and foldable displays.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Displays, consumer electronics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: