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Flexible displays see app hurdles

Posted: 03 Apr 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Spencer Chin? Flexible Displays? flexible-display technology?

Although the flexible display industry is making progress in resolving materials and process issues, it remains behind the curve in developing products.

At the Flexible Displays and Microelectronics Conference recently, evidence abounded of steady gains in technical areas like barrier coatings and flexible substrate materials. But the overall sense was that flexible-display technology is much more active in the lab than in products.

At last year's conference, the scarcity of product applications was linked to the absence of a "killer" application that would drive the technology into high-volume production. But this year's speakers argued that the market is there for the flexible-display industry to seize.

Liz Ziepniewski, an analyst for digital-print research consulting firm IT Strategies Inc., said the addressable market for flexible displays is over $400 billionmore than half of it comprising the traditional paper media market. Noting the decline in newspaper circulation, Ziepniewski said flexible displays could potentially be deployed in individual communication displays to replace newspapers.

Karl McGoldrick, chief executive of Philips' Polymer Vision business, said the booming mobile sector was being shortchanged because the display industry has failed to keep up with the screen-size requirements of handset makers. He called for companies developing flexible-display technologies to play a key role in addressing mobile display deficiencies by accelerating product development.

"We need to focus on getting products to market to get the industry off the ground," he said, citing market projections that see cellphone sales going from 800 million in 2005 to 1 billion by 2010.

A semiconductor industry veteran of companies such as Intel, McGoldrick added that the flexible-display industry was spending too much energy on trying to work out technical bugs rather than getting products to market first and resolving process issues as development proceeded.

McGoldrick's company has demonstrated a rollable display for a pocket e-Reader. And PolymerVision is said to be developing a 5-inch, 320pixel x 240pixel roll-up display for 2007 using E-Ink Corp.'s electrophoretic technology.

E-Ink is ramping up a number of applications for its technology, said VP of research and advanced development Michael McCrary.

The company said its display is being used in Lexar's JumpDrive Mercury USB flash drive. And Citizen Clock is using it in a bendable clock measuring 21inch x 52inch.

Getting the technology into products, however, remains elusive for other companies, even those that have worked with it for a while. For instance, Kent Displays Inc. has conducted research on flexible cholesteric displays over the last decade. Asad Khan, Kent's VP of R&D, said issues like interconnects and the need for an improved supply chain of materials and other providers present challenges.

The company has developed a number of prototypes, such as a self-powered display integrated with a solar cell, and is collaborating with Arizona State University and the U.S. Army to develop a flexible active-matrix QVGA display later this year.

Yields remain an obstacle for some companies trying to commercialize flexible displays, however. For instance, Seiko Epson developed what it considers to be the world's thinnest high-resolution electrophoretic display.

But Seiko Epson researcher Mitsutoshi Miyasaka said the technology has so far produced devices no more than 2.1inches in diagonal. Attempts to fabricate larger devices have resulted in poor yields, he conceded.

On the positive side, encouraging signs came from several companies that reported progress in materials and processes.

Dow Corning Corp. said it is moving closer to developing silicon-carbide alloy barrier films on flexible substrates for low-moisture permeability applications. Vitex Systems reported it was tooling up a manufacturing line to produce high-barrier, plastic-film substrates produced in roll format for flexible displays. Sigma Technologies International Inc. discussed a technique to produce flexible organic and inorganic electroluminescent devices.

- Spencer Chin
EE Times

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