by Jennifer Colegrove
For years, many industry participants and consumers have dreamed of a display technology that would break through the limitations of glass-based displays. These limitations clearly can be seen in mobile devices, in which fragility, weight, and the shrinking size of the devices combine to place constraints on the display. What if displays could be rugged, lightweight, and foldable so that a large display area could fit into a small device?
New devices coming onto the marketplace, led by Polymer Vision's Readius – a truly rollable e-book and mobile phone that will be available to consumers by mid-2008 – may be the answer to many people's dreams. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the Readius and other active-matrix electrophoretic displays on plastic/metal foil substrates from companies such as E Ink may open up a host of new business and revenue opportunities not just for e-ink and e-paper producers, but also for consumer-electronics, industrial, and military device makers.
A host of new products taking advantage of this blossoming technology are slated to come to market, leading iSuppli Corp. to forecast that the total flexible-display market will reach $2.8 billion by 2013, a remarkable expansion of 35 times, from about $80 million in 2007. The establishment of several batch and roll-to-roll facilities is enabling rising shipments of flexible displays.
With a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 80.9% between 2007 and 2013, this represents an enormous financial opportunity for not only display vendors manufacturing the materials for this technology, but for those companies developing and manufacturing applications for end markets. And as flexible displays become more commonplace and more attention is paid to these displays, it is highly likely that the market will see many new entrants with new applications targeting new areas, similar to what has happened in the touch-screen display market thanks to Apple's iPod.
The bar graph below presents iSuppli's forecast for flexible-display revenues for the period of 2007 through 2013.
Flexible displays are intuitively appealing to end users and product designers because of their ruggedness, thinness, light weight, and novelty. Such displays also offer manufacturers the potential for inexpensive fabrication because they can be made using new printing methods or roll-to-roll processing. Furthermore, flexible displays have the advantage of easy and relatively inexpensive shipping and safety handling compared to conventional rigid screens. When flexible displays break, they do not have any sharp edges that can cause injuries or further damage.
Mobile handsets were the leading application for flexible displays in terms of unit shipments in 2007. This application will remain a significant source of demand, but will not grow very fast, falling behind smart labels, electronic display cards, and other applications.
Flexible displays have been and will continue to be used for many applications such as e-readers/e-paper, electronic display cards, electronic shelf-labels, automotive applications, clothing/wearable, point-of-purchase/public signage and advertisements, removable storage devices, and other products. And as this technology becomes pervasive in society, expect to see numerous other products and innovations coming from current players and new players looking to cash in on the buzz from the technology.
2008: "Year One" for Flexible Active-Matrix Displays
Flexible displays entered consumers' daily lives long before Readius, with products such as Motorola, Inc.'s Motofone handset, electronic-card displays, and T-shirt displays. However, all of these were direct-drive or passive-matrix types of flexible displays. Until now, active-matrix flexible displays didnot exist to provide the image quality that users expect from their LCD TVs and PC monitors.
But in 2008, this has changed. Prime View International (PVI), LG Displays (formerly LG.Philips LCD), and Plastic Logic all have announced that they will offer high-resolution flexible active-matrix displays in production by the second half of 2008. Therefore, 2008 represents "Year One" for flexible active-matrix displays, a major turning point for the industry.
The value chain for flexible displays is more complex than glass-based displays. More than a dozen display technologies can be made into flexible screens, ranging from conventional LCDs and bistable LCDs to organic light-emitting-diode (OLED), electrophoretic, electrochromic, and electroluminescent (EL) displays. In addition, flexible displays can utilize several substrate materials, transparent conductors, and TFT material types.
In terms of unit shipments, electrophoretic displays will continue to be the leading type of flexible display for the next 5 years, after which they likely will be surpassed by electro-chromic flexible-display shipments due to smart labels and other high-volume applications. However, electrophoretic flexible displays will lead in revenue for the foreseeable future, driven increasingly by high-value applications such as e-books. Flexible EL displays had the second highest revenues in 2007; applications include clothes and wearable, point-of-purchase/signage/advertisement, and mobile handsets. Flexible conventional LCDs and EL displays will follow electrophoretic displays in revenues over the next 5 years.
Plastic was the dominant substrate material for flexible displays in 2007, serving nearly all of the total substrate area. iSuppli forecasts that plastic substrates will continue to be the dominant material for flexible displays, with more than 94% of the market in 2013. Stainless-steel substrates will enter the market in 2008 with applications in active-matrix electrophoretic displays and later in active-matrix OLED displays and LCDs.
As mentioned earlier, the introduction of active-matrix flexible displays is a major turning point for the industry, and iSuppli forecasts that the revenue from active-matrix flexible displays will increase dramatically, reaching 74% of the total market value by 2013. An investment of several-hundred-million dollars has been made in flexible displays in the past couple of years and capacity is currently expanding. For example:
• Polymer Vision received $27 million in funding, a spin-off from Philips, in January 2007. "Readius" will be available to consumers in mid-2008.
• PVI has announced the mass production of flexible active-matrix electrophoretic displays in the second half of 2008.
• LG Displays has announced the mass production of flexible active-matrix electrophoretic displays in the second half of 2008.
• Plastic Logic received $100 million funding in January 2007 to build a manufacturing plant in Dresden, Germany (plus the support of the German government in terms of land) and will start production in the second half of 2008. The initial capacity will be more than 1 million display modules (equivalent of 10-in. on the diagonal) per year.
• Several roll-to-roll facilities have been or are being established.In terms of form factor, iSuppli forecasts that truly bendable/flexible display unit shipments will increase to 26% of the total shipments in 2013, starting from 13% in 2007; the majority of "flexible" displays are expected to be used in a flat or formed configuration.
After years of R&D as well as a fair amount of dreaming, active-matrix flexible displays will finally be entering the commercial market-place in 2008, sparking a huge growth in this segment as display manufacturers, OEMs, and consumers get more familiar with these types of devices during the next few years. Myriad technologies can be used to make flexible displays, meaning that there is likely to be some market shakeout to go along with the explosive growth.