The 32" OLED TV: a possible new downturn victim
"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.
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."