The annual Flexible and Printed Electronics Conference and Exhibition, 2013 Flex, was held in Phoenix, Arizona last week, which showcased the status of the flexible display and electronics industry. In general, flexible displays have the inherent benefit of possessing a thickness and weight of less than half that of a rigid display. Flexible displays, solar cells and electronics are often constructed on plastic substrates as opposed to glass or silicon, but in some cases very thin metallic substrates or foils can be utilized. Liquid crystal displays (LCDs) dominate the market for rigid display applications and an emerging technology known as organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are slowly being developed to gain market share in the overall industry. OLEDs are being targeted for a wide array of mobile devices and displays; however, HDTVs and smartphones are the top candidates for commercialization.
One of the top applications drawing media attention for OLEDs and cited during Flex 2013 is the proposed highly energy-efficient 55-inch Curved OLED TV from Samsung demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, NV this year. The performance of the OLED panel will be the key advantage for high-end HDTVs, especially for viewing in 3D, sports, gaming and movies due to enhanced factors such as: viewing angle, reduced power consumption, response time of the display, sharpness, contrast ratio and greyscale performance.
The Samsung product is expected to be launched in 2013 before their primary competitor- LG. This 55-inch OLED TV is expected to have a price tag of $10,000, nearly twice that of its closest LED-lit LCD equivalent. However, manufacturing yields are still low, as OLEDs are highly prone to failure due to moisture and air contamination, while the flexibility of the display adds another layer of complexity that requires new, innovative production processes. Due to the low yields and shortage of display components in making the non-flexible Galaxy SIII, Samsung has had to divert manufacturing efforts and capacity toward their more immediate revenue stream for smartphones.
Companies such as Samsung, who dominates the market share currently for OLEDs, have been securing patents for key process technologies that will enable flexible display and electronics technology to skyrocket in the years to come. For example, Samsung has been battling it out with smaller companies whom also developed carbon nanotubes (and other types of nanowires) for these applications, as this material has been deemed useful since they can be semiconducting or metallic based on their structure and exceed the conductivity of copper. Patterning techniques such as self-assembly and nano-imprints are more applicable to flexible displays, which do not typically require high feature densities and high precision compared to advanced microchips. In addition, atomic layer deposition (ALD) is gaining traction for flexible and/or polymer-based substrate processing due to its inherently lower deposition temperature and resulting film stress compared to alternative coating methods. Roll-to-roll ALD is being developed by companies such as Beneq Oy in Finland, who presented at Flex 2013, to streamline the deposition of thin-film layers on flexible substrates.
In general, the flexible display and electronics industry is highly reliant on a major breakthrough, volume-centric product that generates a spillover effect, similar to how e-readers helped lead to tablets, and creates a robust supply chain, where many of the current startup companies affiliated with the FlexTech Alliance can eventually thrive. One of the disconnects in the field is the fact many companies are only working on specific flexible components such as sensors or displays. However, for major breakthrough products, the whole device needs to be flexible including the battery and electronic elements. Since flexible electronics are considered next-generation technology, the industry should focus on future products expected to hit the market in the next three to five years like the fablet. A fablet (phone-tablet) is likely the convergence point moving forward in size and scope for the ultimate mobile device, as smartphones get larger and tablets shrink so that the future iPad mini can make phone calls and send texts as well. Maybe Apple is already working on it.