What was my most memorable SID 2012 show event? Well, as a materials guy, having four major glass companies not only presenting products at SID but all showing the same future look as a raw material was my highlight. Corning, NEG, AGC and Schott all presented thin glass not only in sheet form, but all nicely rolled up for future processing.
As I have worked in that field myself many years ago, it was a ‘finally it is coming’ moment after all. This glass is so thin that it looks like plastic sheets nicely rolled up for future consumption. It almost looks like you can wrap your presents in it. But take my word for it, it will not work.
As shown in the picture, without touching (and breaking it for that matter) it is almost impossible to tell the difference between rolled up plastic and glass in this form. As we have four credible glass companies showing their latest development efforts to bring thin glass to the display manufacturing world, I will take their word for it that we actually looked at glass. And besides this point I have seen the production of thin glass in that thicknesses range with my own eyes many years ago. So, I have no doubt that this is real glass on a roll we were looking at.
Of course every company has their specialty and for a more detailed discussion of the status at each company, please take a look at the June issue of our Mobile Display Report.
This approach promises not only thinner displays or touch panels for that matter, it clearly aims at the roll to roll (R2R) processing of electronic display devices. For many in the display industry, this has been a long time the dream – and a potential game changer on how we will perceive the electronic display in our day-to-day life. While still many years away, one day people may point to SID 2012 as the potential starting point for this development.
Discussions about R2R processing of displays has long been researched with the support of government funds. And, at least one installation in the world (Kent Display) is actually producing displays with this method. However, these displays are not the full HD panels, but cholesteric displays for much less demanding applications.
Nevertheless, the old fab model has shown its weakness in the recent economic downturn. Historically, the display business was driven to larger and larger fabs to get the economies of scale for larger and larger displays and a lower cost per display – even with escalating fab investment costs. As long as the demand for displays, especially larger TVs, created demand to keep a Gen10 fab was running at capacity, the business model guaranteed positive results for anyone brave enough to invest around $4B (that is approximately the complete yearly government budget of Jamaica) into a LCD fab. As this demand evaporated, so did the guaranteed positive results, which has severely weaken many large display manufacturers in Asia. The fallout of this event is still developing and many companies are starting to share the risk of this kind of investment by sharing the ownership of these fabs.
This raises the question if we are not better off developing a display manufacturing technology that can produce high quantities of displays with a much more manageable investment by turning to R2R processes. Of course this is a very difficult question and five analysts will give you ten different opinions on why or why not this is a bad idea. Besides the potentially good outcome, the industry just does not have the money to support such development any time soon.
This in turn raises the question, why these materials manufacturers are all showing rolled up glass. Asking the question what the status of thin glass material sales is in their respective companies is, it turns out that all are working with select customers on sampling and product development. No one would comment on if these first customers are display manufacturers or touch panel makers. The second option may actually be a good choice for first deployment as plant investments are much lower and demand is still growing strongly driven by all those Smartphones and Tablets.
Only one of those manufacturers sees potential volume sales starting later in 2012. This makes this approach much more interesting, as this could mean we actually will see products in the hands of consumers by 2013 that incorporate thin glass.
Look forward to more interesting development in that field in the coming years.