The New Year Brings in a New Era for OLED Technology


by Stephen P. Atwood

My editorial for this issue was all but complete when the news came in about the sale of Kodak's OLED business. The company's words in its press release: "Eastman Kodak Company (NYSE: EK) announced today that it will sell substantially all the assets associated with its OLED business to a group of LG companies." There it is, that simple. An amazing record of over 30 years of research and development efforts comes to a close from Kodak's point of view.

I ran a search on Google and found over 100 U.S. patents issued to Kodak with the term "OLED" in the title and over 200 more that refer to OLED somewhere in the text. This does not even address the international patent landscape, which is probably similarly broad. Many of these patents represent fundamental research that has seeded lots of follow-on efforts and licensing opportunities. Meanwhile, we've all watched the great progress, occasional stumbles, and stunning demonstrations that have come from Kodak over the years. I remarked on this in my June 2006 editorial in ID when I made a plea for "Flexible Expectations." I was referring to the news that the Kodak/Sanyo partnership had recently been dissolved and to the subsequent questions from analysts about whether this spelled the end for OLED development. Of course, I did not think so and argued that the problem was really that somewhat unrealistic expectations had been set by the people who market and report on the industry.

Developing OLED technology has required solutions to many hurdles in material science, physics, chemistry, etc. Several tangential technology innovation timelines have had to converge and it has taken more than just the science skills at Kodak. It has taken money – lots of money – some of it government funded but a whole lot more of it commercially invested by companies such as Kodak, Sony, LG, Samsung, Sanyo, Universal Display Corp, and others. Unfortunately for Kodak, there is only so much money it could afford to invest, and my guess is that getting to high-volume commercial success will still cost much more than anyone has spent to date.

In a recent Display Daily column from Insight Media, Ken Werner was quoted as saying, "As has been true for all display technologies, the path to high-volume manufacturing and larger sizes for AMOLED has been slower and harder than anticipated. That has left most of the serious development to large corporations with deep pockets and patient corporate cultures." Historically, I would not have thought of Kodak as a small company, but in this case, the future investment in OLED display manufacturing is likely to be counted in billions of dollars, not millions, and only a small number of players exist in the world that can make bets of this scale. There do not appear to be any more details about the terms of this sale in the public domain yet, but I sincerely hope Kodak's shareholders got a fair price because I would wager the business of OLED displays stands to be very profitable for someone when it eventually matures. This feels like the start of a new era and it's a bit sad that the dedicated team at Kodak will likely be watching from the sidelines now.

While many of you were still enjoying the last days of summer, our editorial staff was busy crafting our new format and filling out the hot topics for the 2010 calendar. What I find most interesting is how much overlap can be found between conventional display applications and many other technology areas. In his column this month, SID President Paul Drzaic talks about synergies with subjects covered in recent Materials Research Society conferences, including stretchable electronics and nano-materials. Automotive electronics, for example, are now being experimentally fabricated on flexible substrates for conformable driver information systems. These new concepts include gauges and displays but also sensors of many varieties. These systems will undoubtedly take advantage of the research into flexible backplanes for LC and OLED display applications.

Solid-state lighting, coincidentally the theme for this month's issue of ID, is also benefitting significantly from the development work being undertaken for LED backlights in LCDs. These developments include integrated driver/controller circuits, power-management systems, light sensors, thermal packaging, and, of course, the wide range of LED devices themselves. There is no doubt that the holy grail for most LED developers has always been lighting, owing to the seemingly endless volume of potential applications, but for the past 5 years, LEDs have mainly been a backlighting story, with the display industry driving the demand and investments. Now, SSL has begun to turn the corner into viability and I am very pleased that we are covering this valuable topic this month. We plan to cover several more of these types of new and important areas this year in the on-going effort to bring you an ever more encompassing view of display-related technologies.

Our January issue features some great Frontline Technology articles on solid-state lighting that have been solicited and edited by Jeffrey Spindler from Kodak. LEDs and OLEDs show tremendous promise in terms of revolutionizing the lighting industry, as Spindler and his co-authors explain in their feature article "Next-Generation Solid-State Lighting Technology." Incidentally, Jeffrey and co-authors Steven Van Slyke and Tukaram Hatwar, along with their former colleague Ching Tang, are listed variously as inventors on a very large number of Kodak's OLED patents. Very few people know the technology as well as these authors.

Another company very involved in SSL through its innovation in highly efficient inorganic LEDS has been OSRAM, and author Christopher Eichelberger provides us with an overview of the state of the art, and also addresses some of the issues around the design of lighting devices and the landscape of regulatory and standards activities under way.

In our Making Displays Work for You segment, we get a virtual recipe book of power supply and LED driver designs from authors Graham Upton, Michael Keene, and Michael Kretzmer from Endicott Research Group (ERG). They describe the pros and cons of many different AC power-supply architectures and how to adapt them for consumer lighting applications with LEDs.

Last, but not least, Jenny Donelan covers the SSL beat by looking at the range of new lighting designs being explored, sizing up the potential market, and identifying elements of conventional lamp manufacturer business models that may need to change as this revolution comes to fruition. I am very excited about the all the possibilities, including ergonomically designed workspaces with lighting that removes stress, artistic beautification of city buildings and landscapes, and great new ways to brighten up home spaces – all at greatly reduced energy costs. I hope that this collection of articles helps bring the new era of solid-state lighting into sharp focus for you and gets you excited about the new era of lighting as well. •