Promise of organic LED technology stimulates flat-panel-display market

Organic-light-emitting-diode (OLED) technology offers attractive qualities that presage a prominent place in the flat-panel-display market.

May 1st, 1999

Organic-light-emitting-diode (OLED) technology offers attractive qualities that presage a prominent place in the flat-panel-display market. The continuing development of OLED manufacturing-process technology along with materials systems further strengthens prospects for success among the diverse display technologies currently in development and in the marketplace. Distinguishing advantages offered by OLED technology include low operating voltage; thin, monolithic structure; emissive, rather than passive operation; and full color.

OLED market niche

Examples of the market activity stimulated by the potential advantages of OLED displays include the February 1999 announcement of the joint-development alliance between Sanyo (Osaka, Japan) and Eastman Kodak (Rochester, NY), development programs arranged by Cambridge Display Technology Ltd. (Cambridge, England) with DuPont (Wilmington, DE), Philips (Eindhoven, Netherlands), and many others. Pioneer (Tokyo, Japan) is the first company to begin selling consumer products with OLED displays and is planning to market display components to other customers. Nearly every large chemical company in the world has demonstrated some level of interest in OLEDs.

Many display developers have concentrated on light-emitting technologies in the past few decades. This was probably a direct response to the challenge of replacing the shadow-mask cathode-ray tube with a flat-panel display. Major problems in power consumption, complicated mechanical structures, and limited color potential have restricted the market appeal of these developing technologies. Eventually, the liquid-crystal display (LCD) grew to dominate the display industry through a combination of factors such as low power, high contrast ratio, adequate speed, adequate manufacturability, and many industry participants.

As LCD users demanded better readability and color, backlights were added, which essentially converted the LCD into an emitting display. The color LCD is not really an efficient electronic image generator, however. A formidable array of different materials, deposition and film-forming processes, specialty chemicals, and electrical components are needed to make a color LCD-particularly an active-matrix LCD. In addition, only about 10% of the light generated by the backlight is used to make an image.

As indicated by the success of the cathode-ray-tube-based TV and computer monitor, users appear to prefer light-emitting displays, at least for indoor applications. The most hopeful solutions for new types of emissive flat-panel displays are plasma and field emission. However, neither can address the full range of sizes demanded by the display market. The possibility of an entirely new class of solid-state light-emitting displays with features allowing it to address many parts of the existing display market is exciting.

One potential drawback to the organic light-emitting diode as it addresses larger graphic displays is the need for relatively high current. Although OLED displays have been successfully multiplexed in smaller sizes (16 to 64 lines), there are potential problems addressing several hundred lines. An active-matrix drive network is needed to deliver the high current to the OLED pixels, so polysilicon thin-film transistors (TFTs) are needed. Amorphous-silicon TFTs are not capable of providing the electrical current needed to operate a bright display, so for the near term, the OLED will address small-sized to medium-sized display applications (see Fig. 1).

OLED market potential

Overall, there is the potential for the OLED market to grow to nearly $215 million in 2002 and to approach $350 million by 2004. Due to the inertia of ramping up this type of business, the growth rate is expected to continue to be strong from 2002 onward. This forecast represents a conservative estimate of the market potential for OLEDs based on the features, requirements, and price trends in the electronic-display market.

Stanford Resources (San Jose, CA) made these estimates based on consideration of both the supply and demand aspects of the market. The assumption was made that adequately funded companies will develop the OLED technologies, and resources would be allocated to finding and selling to customers on a worldwide basis. Other assumptions include that the technology development will continue; the level of awareness about OLEDs will grow; the selling process initially will take 18 to 24 months for new customers; and prices will be lower than comparable displays. For the target market, essentially all of the LED and vacuum-fluorescent-display (VFD) applications were considered, as well as segmented LCDs and some graphic LCDs.

The criteria for estimating the suitability of the OLED for the particular technology and application are the similarity to existing display products, match of light-emitting characteristics, power requirements (if any), daylight viewability requirement (if any), and form factor. Prices are assumed to be better or at least comparable. Clearly this is a delicate balance, because, if the price were assumed to be lower, then the share could be increased.

The LED market surfaces as the earliest potential market for OLEDs because of the similarity of the appearance and operating features. Growth into this part of the low-end market will be somewhat limited because the LED character-display market is not growing rapidly and is characterized by very low prices.

The VFD market is more attractive than the LED market for several reasons. The VFD is a low-power, emissive device used in more than 180 million products every year. It is not available in full color, although efforts have been made over the past 15 years. Only the smallest sizes of the thin-film-electroluminescent (TFEL) display market would be addressable by the OLED in the near term. Likewise, the field-emission-display (FED) market is developing slowly and systematically, and the OLED will be playing catchup with the FED for many years.

The LCD market is the most complex and has the largest potential for penetration. The target applications in the LCD market selected for replacement by OLEDs are those deemed suitable by their power-consumption requirements, viewing characteristics, size, and other attributes. This segment represents only about one-third of the entire LCD market by value. It also represents the most competitive part of the market with dozens of suppliers serving this low-end portion of the LCD business.

Other OLED applications

Another potential application for the OLED is as a backlight for LCD modules. Growth opportunities for this application are limited, however, because it only addresses the noncolor segment of the backlight market. Overall, the backlight market does not appear to be a very attractive component-business option for OLED developers. It is not a high-value market, in general, and the US market alone has about a dozen participants. In addition, traditional display technologies can serve the entire range from low cost/low performance to high cost/high performance. Other unforeseen product categories will certainly be introduced by that time, and these are not included in this forecast.

The market for a low-end monochrome replacement for existing LEDs, VFDs, and some LCDs exists and holds rapid growth potential, exceeding $100 million shortly after the year 2000. It would be possible for OLED suppliers to complete R&D, build factories, find low-end customers, and compete in this market segment within that time frame. This approach to entering the market would clearly require the lowest investment in development and manufacturing resources. Nevertheless, this portion of the market is now highly competitive and is likely to remain so, which will keep pressure on cost reduction and prices in every market segment served. Based on the number of companies serving the low end of the LCD market alone (about 60 firms worldwide), however, this market segment is not expected to be highly profitable.

Overall, OLED technology is one of the most exciting new display technologies. The technological progress has been encouraging, especially considering the limited research funding. As with many other display technologies, progress will speed up when more developers become involved. As several dozen research organizations begin exploring alternative structures, driving schemes, and processes and materials, the OLED will have a very good chance at displacing parts of the existing display market and expanding into new applications (see Fig. 2).

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