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The 32" OLED TV: a possible new downturn victim
I came away from this past CES convinced that OLED displays will one day replace "sliced bread" as English's metaphor of choice for "the greatest thing since..." So after my recent interview with the Managing Director of the OLED Association about what's standing between me and my 30" OLED monitor, I hid in the restroom and wept.
By Jon Stokes | Last updated March 10, 2009 5:11 AM CTText Size Print this article Leave a comment I recently had a sit-down with Barry Young, formerly of DisplaySearch and now the Managing Director of the OLED Association, a new trade group aimed at developing standards for and promoting OLED technology. Barry and I talked quite a bit about the potential of OLED, and the barriers that are still in place to realizing that potential. Guiding our entire discussion was one over-arching question: when will we start seeing very large OLED panels at affordable prices? The answer, in a nutshell, is maybe in 2010—but it ultimately depends on how fast the global economy recovers.
Indeed, the other possibilities of OLED—flexible displays, transparent displays that allow a window by day to function as a light by night, and super-efficient plastic OLED lights that can be cut and molded into interesting shapes—could all be held up until demand for displays starts to recover.
The near-term timeline for OLED panels is fairly stable, and it's actually in better shape than many folks think. To understand where OLED is at, you first have to forget about Sony's headline-grabbing 11-inch OLED TV, which runs a ridiculous $2,500. Young's comments indicated that this unit is much more of a limited run proof-of-concept than it is a genuine consumer product, and even if mass-market demand for the TV were to materialize tomorrow, Sony's production volumes on it are so low that the company wouldn't be able to meet it.
For a more realistic sense of where OLED is, you have to look to Samsung's forthcoming 14.1" OLED, which the company plans to introduce in the second half of this year for laptops and TVs. There is no pricing information yet on the Samsung panel, but the fact that the display maker intends it for the laptop market strongly suggests that its price will be more or less on the high side of what you'd pay for a premium LED-backlit LCD. It could be that by the end of this year (and this is my own inference, not Young's), an OLED screen is the display equivalent of what an SSD was at the start of this year—a luxury that some users will pay a sizable, but not exorbitant, premium to obtain.
But the 14.1" panel size represents something of a brick wall, and to get over it will require a combination of innovation and capital expenditures on brand-new plants. It's via this latter factor—the capital expenditures required for plants that can build larger panels—that the downturn could throw up a serious roadblock to the march of display progress.
Meltdowns and delayed upgrades
It would be nice if existing display manufacturing facilities could be easily and cheaply converted to OLED fabrication, but they can't. Young and I discussed a few major reasons why this is the case, but choice of backplane material stood out as a particularly important issue.
Right now, Young told me, amorphous silicon is the "backplane of choice" for display fabrication. About 95 percent of all LCD fabs are equipped for amorphous silicon, but the problem with amorphous silicon is that it's very susceptible to heat. The circuit design for driving pixels on OLEDs is such that one critical transistor with a very high duty cycle bears the burden of switching the voltage that dictates the pixel's grayscale, and as the display is kept on and heat builds up in the backplane material, that transistor's threshold voltage starts to slip, which means that the color would start to shift.
For OLED displays, polysilicon's higher electron mobility and superior thermal properties under load make it more ideal than amorphous silicon for OLED display backplanes. But right now, there are very few polysilicon fabs, and none that can produce panels beyond a relatively small size.
"So the question is what do you do here," Young told me. "Do you take polysilicon and make it bigger, which means you have to have some new fab equipment that's never been built before, or do you figure out how to work with amorphous silicon?"
Right now, researchers from different companies are actively pursuing the latter option, while other groups are contemplating the former.
Building a new generation of polysilicon fabs around new and untested equipment is not only a gamble, but a capital-intensive one that presumes the existence of sufficient consumer demand to make the fabs pay for themselves. Given the demand destruction that all corners of the PC and consumer electronics markets—including displays—have suffered in the global downturn, there isn't much appetite for ambitious new manufacturing capacity build-outs anywhere at the moment.
"The downturn is likely to delay the kind of things [we talked about] here," Young told me. "This is all new capital investment. It's likely that companies that have excess display capacity will be conservative about making new investments; they're already doing that. Most of the 2009 fabs that were supposed to be fairly significant have either been cancelled or pushed out."
When I asked him specifically about Samsung's planned 32" OLED TV, he replied, "How soon Samsung will do their next generation will be affected by the downturn."
On the bright side, I suppose, my new plasma screen TV will grow obsolete that much more slowly, not that that's much consolation.