The Plasmaco Story
Display Week was the scene of many Plasmaco milestones over the years, and so the show issue of Information Display seems an appropriate place to look back at the tumultuous history of the little company with a disproportionately big place in overall display history.
by Jane D. Birk
IN JUNE 2008, an important chapter of electronic-display history came to an end when parent company Panasonic closed its Highland, New York, plasma-display-panel (PDP) facility formerly known as Plasmaco. More than 20 years has passed since the start-up plasma developer established operations in a former apple-juice processing plant in rural upstate New York. There, among humble surroundings, some fairly state-of-the-art design took place, often under desperate and even heroic circumstances. Since 1987, when Plasmaco commenced operations, the company (which, for most of its existence, was independently owned) went through more turmoil, near misses, and last-minute saves than most companies two or three times its age. Plasmaco came so close to disaster so many times that its eleventh-hour triumphs must have begun to seem like certainties. But finally, in order to consolidate plasma research and development at its main display research sites, Panasonic pulled the plug last year, shutting down the Plasmaco plant.
Plasmaco lives on, however, through the legacy of its achievements in plasma design and manufacturing. Although other companies played important roles in the development of plasma, among them Fujitsu, Pioneer, Hitachi, NEC, and NHK, tiny Plasmaco certainly had the biggest impact-to-resources ratio of them all.
Important milestones in Plasmaco's history includes its first 21-in. color plasma display in 1994, having a high-contrast ratio of 400:1, and its first high-quality 60-in.-diagonal HDTV plasma display in 1999, having a high luminance of 450 cd/m2 and a contrast ratio of greater than 500:1. Plasmaco technology also provided the foundation for the 150-in. plasma display that Panasonic showed at CES 2008. Other Plasmaco firsts included products that used the low-energy-recovery sustain circuit (which helped make the technology commercially viable in terms of energy consumption), and the high-contrast-ratio color-display technology used in plasma TVs to this day.
Fig. 1: Plasmaco's 21-in. display capable of showing 24-bit-color full-motion video imagery was introduced at the Flat Information Displays Conference in December 1994.
The company's legacy also survives through its former employees, some of whom went on to work in Panasonic's flat-panel groups, as well as in many other areas of display technology. Over the course of its history, Plasmaco employed over 240 individuals in varying capacities and from a wide range of backgrounds.
Somewhat like Plasmaco (at least until just recently), plasma technology itself has more than once been pronounced dead, only to rise from the ashes. Even at this writing, the industry had recently consolidated, with the withdrawal of Pioneer Electronics from plasma, leading many to speculate that the technology's days are numbered. But as plasma expert and pioneer Larry Weber says, "People have been saying that for a long time." Read on.
The history of Plasmaco is intertwined with the history of Weber, its co-founder and underlying visionary. In 1987, he was an electrical-engineering professor at the University of Illinois, trying to revive IBM's fading plasma program with new technologies invented at the university. At that time, IBM was the sole major U.S. manufacturer still involved in plasma design. Companies such as AT&T, Burroughs, NCR, Owens-Illinois, Sperry, and Texas Instruments had dropped out. In February of that year, Weber was to meet with IBM to discuss a design revival, but an ice storm delayed the meeting. By the time it could be rescheduled, IBM had already decided to close its plasma-display manufacturing operations in Kingston, New York.
Weber persevered by forming a partner-ship with IBM's Jim Kehoe and Everton Henriques, as well as Mike Marentic, a former graduate student of his. The team secured 6 months of financing and exclusive rights to IBM's manufacturing equipment, patents, and technology. Weber himself searched the Kingston area from his small airplane, keeping an eye out for large buildings with empty parking lots. He finally located a vacant apple-juice processing plant about 20 miles from Kingston. It might have seemed like an unlikely choice, but it was one that proved highly suitable and cost-effective. In all, it took 88 trailer truckloads to haul IBM's PDP manufacturing equipment from Kingston to the new location in Highland. A hole needed to be cut into the side of the building in order to get the equipment inside.
There, development work began in earnest, with the goal of making a big splash at the SID Symposium, Seminar, and Exhibition in Cali-fornia in May 1988. Time was tight: due to lack of funds, the first clean room was not con-structed until a month before the show. On the Friday before SID began, work commenced on the first Plasmaco panel. The final processing was completed the next Monday morning – while the courier waited. The team finished assembling the unit in Marentic's living room in California, and Plasmaco's firstdisplay prototype made its public debut at SID, to strong positive reactions from exhibit goers.
The stock-market crash of October 1987 had already crippled Plasmaco's fund-raising efforts. Nonetheless, it continued developing displays that incorporated Weber's energy-recovery sustain circuitry, chip-on-glass, and independent sustain and address (ISA) technologies. A 10-in. prototype was finished and shown at SID in 1989.
After having stretched the initial 6-month financing to last over a period of 2 years, Plasmaco finally secured major financing in August 1989, enabling it to begin manufacturing. Just as production of 10-in.-diagonal displays was getting under way, however, a mid-1991 European recession constrained the market (Europe was the biggest market for thedisplays at the time). Plasmaco then introduced a 21-in. high-resolution display in 1991, but it, along with its 10-in. counterpart, met with limited acceptance due to the increasing availability and affordability of color LCDs.
In 1993, financial hardships led Plasmaco's board of directors to fire three of the company's founders. Only Weber, as chief technology officer, remained from the original management team. A renowned turnaround expert was brought in, but in Weber's words, the expert "turned around and left" after 6 weeks. The board then asked Weber to step up as acting CEO and to lay off half the dedicated workforce.
At the same time, an audit revealed that it cost $1750 to make one of Plasmaco's 10-in. panels, which sold for $500, so production was terminated. Funds were then in shorter supply than ever.
Fig. 2: Plasmaco co-founder Larry Weber poses on a golf course next to one of the company's 60-in. plasma panels. Image: Will Faller.
In January of 1994, refusing to give up, Weber devised a way to manufacture 21-in. color plasma displays using the company's existing monochrome equipment. The goal was to demo the display at the next SID symposium in 1994, only 5 months away. The catch was that $80,000 was needed for development materials, and although $80,000 does not seem like all that much, it was more than anyone wanted to give Plasmaco at the time.
Two investors eventually came through with the money, but only after Weber had put up a considerable sum from his own personal funds. In the meantime, Plasmaco's bank was threatening to foreclose on loans. Weber came up with a novel solution. He approached the bank and said that if the company were foreclosed on, the bank would get almost nothing from the sale of Plasmaco's aging equipment. However, if the bank allowed the continuation of the color-display development, its rewards would be much greater. As a condition of forestalling foreclosure, Weber agreed that a color panel would be shown at SID 1994. If not, foreclosure proceedings would be reinstated immediately.
Color development work commenced, day and night. In a finish that was tight even by Plasmaco standards, the panel was completed just 2 hours before the end of the exhibition. That 21-in. display showed only a simple color-bar pattern, but due to its bright image and high-contrast ratio, caused considerable excitement at the conference.
Nonetheless, the following months were among the company's darkest. The SID showing had prevented foreclosure, but the company was still out of money. Plasmaco owed nearly everyone. The electric and telephone companies threatened to cut off service, and most of the company's employees were put on a 2-day work week to reduce expenses. Development continued, however. An improved Plasmaco 21-in. display, showing a 24-bit-color full-motion video image, was first publicly exhibited at the Flat Information Displays Conference in December 1994 (Fig. 1).
Earlier that same year (September 1994), a group of venture capitalists had been impressed enough by the color-display progress to provide enough money to allow Plasmaco once again to avoid foreclosure. These venture capitalists then helped Plasmaco find a larger and more long-term source of funding, in the shape of a joint development agreement with Panasonic (then Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.). The company's staff returned to full-time status, and at the 1995 SID show, Plasmaco demonstrated a display with double the brightness and four times the contrast ratio of competing displays. In January of 1996, Panasonic bought Plasmaco, retaining Weber as president and CEO.
The first challenge was to construct a 42-in. display to exhibit at the Japan Electronics show in October 1996. Suddenly, Plasmaco's existing equipment was inadequate. Staff members rallied to obtain new equipment, create a new clean room, and put in the requisite overtime so that the display could be unveiled in Japan. (It was completed an hour before shipping.)
Until that time, panels were produced using most of the same equipment that Plasmaco had acquired from IBM many years earlier. On one plant tour, a visitor commented that much of the equipment was "antique" compared to that in other FPD facilities. To improve productivity and achieve ever-larger panel sizes, over the next few years new, modern equipment was commissioned and acquired, but it was not easy to come by – in fact, what Plasmaco's engineers wanted often did not exist. In many cases, the equipment specified by Plasmaco engineers was the first of its type or scale to be fabricated, pushing the envelope of what was possible and paving the way for the equipment that is now standard in PDP plants throughout the world.
60-in. PDP Development
Panasonic's goal was for Plasmaco to deliver its first 60-in. panels for display at the Japan Electronics Show in October 1999. However, Plasmaco was determined to have the panels debut even earlier, at the SID exhibition in May of that year.
Most events featuring Plasmaco PDP prototypes were accompanied by at least one Plasmaco engineer on hand to make "last minute" adjustments or repairs. At SID 1999 in Anaheim, California, 10 engineers and numerous spare parts were on standby as Plasmaco prepared to exhibit its first 60-in. display. Many long hours were spent setting up, making last-minute changes, swapping-out circuit boards, and tweaking circuits. The hard work paid off, and the 60-in. displays performed flawlessly throughout the show (Fig. 2).
Fig. 3: The company's 60-in. prototypes were used extensively to promote HDTV around the start of the millennium.
Even though Plasmaco continued development of its 60-in. PDPs, they were never commercially produced. However, they played a major part in promoting the technology. In addition to SID, the 60-in. prototype panels were exhibited at over 30 events worldwide over the next 2 years and were featured as part of Panasonic's PDP marketing efforts, attracting considerable attention from potential customers, competitors, and the general public. These "proof of concept" PDPs demonstrated that PDPs could be both big and bright and helped spur the display industry – both PDPs and LCDs – to achieve even larger, brighter, and higher-resolution panels.
In 2003, Plasmaco developed a 61-in. PDP that became a commercial product, sold on a limited basis by Panasonic's consumer PDP division. It was exhibited by Panasonic at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show and served as the prototype for the 65-in. PDP that Panasonic introduced to the market later that same year.
As is obvious today, large-format PDPs are intrinsically suited to display high-definition television. However, at the time the first HD-PDPs were being developed, few people outside development labs and high-end professional studios had even seen large-screen HDTV, much less understood its potential. The power of the format just was not clear when it was viewed on 37-in. CRTs from a distance, which was how most people had been exposed to it.
As broadcast HDTV made its entrance, Plasmaco (along with Panasonic) helped to promote the format to a wider audience through providing its 60-in. HDTV PDP prototypes to events produced by major HDTV innovators (Fig. 3). Among these were an HDTV conference hosted by the BBC near London and attended by TV leaders from throughout Europe, exhibitions at the 2000 presidential conventions sponsored by NHK, and ABC TV's initial HDTV broadcasts of "Monday Night Football" during the 1999–2000 season.
These "seeing is believing" events, viewed by industry leaders, government officials, the press, celebrities, and ordinary citizens, helped demonstrate the advantages of HDTV over conventional broadcasting. At each demo, people were amazed at the clarity of minute details – such as the expressions on the players' faces that were now clearly visible through the HDTV transmissions. During one early ABC "Monday Night Football" event, viewers were entranced by the sight of crickets on the field prior to kick-off – something that would never have been visible in an NTSC broadcast.
From Prototype to $1000 at Wal-Mart
When Plasmaco's first large-format (42-in. plus) PDPs were introduced at SID, CES, and other shows, one of the questions often asked by attendees was "When will we be able to purchase it for $1000 at Wal-Mart?" This question was often asked with more than a touch of sarcasm. Back then, Plasmaco's stock answer, which was based on no particular knowledge, was "about 10 years from now." That "prediction" has come true – today 42-in. or larger PDPs are available at major "big box" and online retailers at or below the $1000 price point.
At the time that Plasmaco helped demonstrate large-screen high-definition television, "The PDP industry was creating what soon became the world's largest market for displays," says Weber. Of course, these efforts did not go unnoticed by the LCD industry, he notes. Once a rarity, large PDP and LCD panels are now ubiquitous – not only are they a routine sight in public and commercial venues such as malls, super markets, airports, and hotel lobbies, but they are major players in the mainstream television marketplace. The electronics departments of all major retailers today feature a large array of LCD and PDP televisions – with few CRT-based TVs in sight.
The End of the Story?
In 2004, Larry Weber retired as president of Plasmaco. During his tenure as Plasmaco's leader, he oversaw efforts to bring PDPs from an academic concept at the University of Illinois during the 1960s to a viable and profitable consumer-electronics product. Today, Panasonic is the world's largest maker of plasma TVs, demonstrating 103-in. models in 2007 and 150-in. models in 2008. LCDs currently have the upper hand in terms of sales, but plasma is still strongest in the larger diagonals.
The "human element" of the company must also be acknowledged. Plasmaco's success was a direct result of the varied talents of the many people it employed, built upon the foundation laid by the vision, leadership, and contributions of its original founders, including Weber. Their leadership in forming and sustaining the company during often difficult times was essential in the early stages and formed the basis for the "can-do" attitude the company demonstrated throughout the years.
As for Weber, he is currently involved in PDP research, working on low-power plasma technology in his basement. He says the story of plasma definitely isn't over. Certainly the entrepreneurial spirit of Plasmaco lives on. Stay tuned. •
Actual water dripped "through" the bottom corner of a plasma panel in this specially designed installation. Jane Birk, the author of the article, appears in the picture.