A Warning from Sendai for Displays


Stephen Atwood

The effects of the recent earthquake and tsunami in the northeast region of Japan continue to draw the world's attention as stories emerge about the full impact not only on the people but on the display, electronics, and technology industries as a whole. We have all seen the aftermath of earthquakes and some of you may even have experienced a major earthquake firsthand. Recently, there have been three earthquake events that formed permanent memories for me. The first two were in California (Loma Prieta, 1989, near San Francisco) and (Northridge 1994, near Los Angeles). Both those quakes caused major disruptions of infrastructure and commerce as well as loss of life. Many of us remember the 1989 San Francisco event because it happened during the baseball World Series game, but the memory that is more vivid for me was the footage of the collapse of sections of the double-deck Interstate 880 highway. To this day, I fear driving on the lower level of bridges.

Besides the immediate upheavals, both of these events in California caused major commercial disruptions for long periods of time and certainly affected supply chains for many businesses. Consequently, they brought about more frequent discussions of "disaster planning," in which suppliers provide their customers with plans for how they will recover from events like these and still provide the required components and services. Making such planning trickier, modern manufacturing plants use processes that are designed to require the smallest possible amount of extra inventory. This makes regular on-time delivery of components critical to the plant's operation. Even one missed day of deliveries due to an earthquake or other disruptive event can shut down the lines and cause a significant economic hardship up and down the chain, making the risk far too great to ignore.

The other earthquake that is unforgettable is the 1995 Great Hanshin Quake in southwestern Japan near Kobe. There as well we saw an extraordinary disruption of infrastructure and commerce, but in this case a much larger loss of life than in the two California events. The images from Japan were terrifying – people being rescued from under the rubble and the devastating collapse of highways and buildings. (Still further reason for my fear of driving on bridges.) At that time I had colleagues traveling in Japan who were missing for several hours but later were located unharmed. I had just made trips to Japan myself for business and had been in Kobe earlier that year. It was painful to see all the damage and destruction. And, my business was materially impacted because afterwards we could not get some critical electrical components and neither could many of our customers, so we experienced a double hit both in lost production days and in cancellation of orders. I'm sure other companies experienced much greater impacts than we did, but it galvanized my recognition of the fragility of the economic food chain.

However, none of these memories, nor my ability to understand the science of geology, nor even my appreciation of other recent events (such as the tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2009), prepared me to expect what happened in Japan on March 11, 2011. The remarkable combination of a 9.0-scale earthquake that lasted literally minutes, and a subsequent tsunami that swept the low-lying region around Sendai, has shown me that I did not appreciate the full scope of what could happen, in terms of both human and commercial catastrophe.

There are many philosophical issues to contemplate here, but I will address the commercial side; in particular, the business of displays. Despite the severity of what has taken place in Japan, it appears that the display industry may escape this one with only minor economic impact. Most of the major LCD manufacturing facilities in the country are located more to the south, and their factories were not apparently damaged, though we do know that Sony as well as others have suspended some production temporarily because of component shortages. There was some touch-screen manufacturing in the area around Fukushima that is likely shut down permanently. Other reports say that certain chemicals used in coatings came from that area and will be in limited supply indefinitely, and there is some OLED-material production as well that has been disrupted. Fortunately, there are other sources for these materials.

In many cases, we will likely see short-term disruptions due to infrastructure and power outages rather than directly due to factory damage. There has been some hoarding, with shortages of LCD panels, in the U.S. distribution channels that may or may not have resulted from anything more than speculation, but all in all I think the display industry dodged the big bullet – this time. That should not, however, reduce our sense of urgency for better disaster planning. If this event had happened in a different region of Japan, or in certain parts of other countries like Taiwan, Korea, or China, the economic impact to displays might have been crippling.

Thinking about all this has helped me to realize that our display industry worldwide is very vulnerable to large-scale natural and man-made events, and therefore so is the rest of the electronics industry. There are so many consumer and industrial products today that rely on displays that any disruption in the supply of display modules could have a very large economic ripple effect. Roughly half of all large-area TFT-LCD panels are produced on the Korean peninsula, with the other half coming from Taiwan, China, Japan, and neighboring countries. The entire Pacific rim is a region rich in plate tectonic activity and volcanic instability that has earned the name "Ring of Fire." Multiple sources confirm that the majority of the world's largest magnitude earthquakes occur along this ring, which forms a horseshoe extending roughly from New Zealand up past Japan, across the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, down along the U.S. west coast, and all the way to the bottom tip of South America. The world's electronics, and in particular displays, from raw materials and chemicals up to finished monitors, TVs, notebooks, handheld devices, and countless other display-enabled products, are manufactured in factories near this ring. It seems self-evident that any future large-scale natural event along this line could have a dreadful impact on the world's electronics economy.

This is why the industry must come together to develop real long-term comprehensive disaster prevention plans. Many companies have internal disaster recovery plans, but they generally do not address situations where entire geographic regions or complete supply chains are wiped out. The display industry needs a broad-based redundant capacity recovery plan that spans multiple continents and addresses recovery of the entire supply chain. It will not be easy because some of the most obvious things such as redundant manufacturing in multiple locations, and larger inventory reserves, are very expensive to implement. It would require that normally highly competitive and secretive companies must work together in ways to which they are not accustomed. Government is not the answer this time because no one country or even one political system controls the industry. Neither can major consuming customers such as cell-phone makers or notebook manufacturers drive this on their own, though they can make second sourcing and disaster planning a key part of their supply-chain acquisition strategy.

For this to really happen, it will require all the major players (and you know who you are) to take a very high-level view together of the entire landscape and decide for yourselves that you will never allow a large-scale natural disaster to cripple the rest of the industry. An extraordinary number of people rely on displays and electronics for their very economic survival. I think we are obligated as stewards of the display industry we have built to heed the warnings delivered to us by the Sendai earthquake, if not for ourselves, for the generations to come after us.

Returning to the "issue" at hand, let me welcome you to the 2011 SID Preview and Honors & Awards issue of Information Display. I have said this many times before, but it bears repeating, that while the discoveries and achievements being recognized through this years honorees may seem like overnight successes, they are the culmination of each person's lifetime of hard work and experience. As managing editor Jenny Donelan explains in her cover story, while there may have been some serendipity involved in their individual circumstances, it was their skills, insight, and a lifetime of hard work that closed the deal. I hope you will join us in celebrating this year's SID Honors & Awards recipients.

This was a busy month for Jenny because not only did she chronicle the Honors and Awards, she also contributed this month's annual Symposium Preview of the key papers to be presented at Display Week 2011 in Los Angeles this May. The annual Symposium is the heart and soul of SID and the place where the very latest cutting-edge developments get revealed. Reading the preview, I'm sure you will see that the variety and depth of innovation in all the different aspects of display technology is as strong as it has ever been. For me this is one of the best leading indicators of a healthy economic recovery!

Our Guest Editor for this month is Dr. Aldo Badano from the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, FDA, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Aldo not only took up the mantle of updating us on the field of medical displays, he also co-authored two of the three technology features we have this month, and we are very grateful for his tireless efforts on the behalf of ID. In the first feature, authors Aldo Badano and Wei-Chung Cheng discuss several very interesting "Emerging Topics in Medical Displays," including the potential and challenges of using mobile displays for some types of diagnostics, and the growing interest in 3-D displays and images to aid better breast-cancer detection. In the second feature, the same authors provide us with an overview of the challenges associated with pre-clinical, regulatory assessment of display systems used for viewing and interpreting medical images. As you will read, it is no small feat to gain the necessary data for eventual regulatory approval of a new display system for medical diagnostic use and the authors give us comprehensive insight into those issues.

Multiple-primary displays, those having more than just the traditional red-green-blue color components, have long been a topic of discussion and in some cases have resulted in innovative commercial offerings such as flat-panel TVs and projection systems. In this feature, "Multiprimary-Color Displays and Their Evaluation Methods," author Professor Masahiro Yamaguchi (Global Scientific Information and Computing Center at Tokyo Institute of Technology), using an example six-primary display, describes the complex technology of multiprimary systems, their advantages for medical applications, and the methodology of evaluating their performance.

Turning to the marketplace, we welcome again author Matthew Brennesholtz, who incidentally published a two-part article in ID in September and October of 2006 on the science of color gamuts. These articles provide some good background understanding of the color-space discussions in Professor Yamaguchi's feature. This month in his article titled "Display Interfaces Go Wireless," Matt takes up the challenge of summarizing the growing competitive space for wireless display interface standards and how they compare to each other in performance and future potential. This is a comprehensive survey that contains a lot of valuable information. I hope you will be able to use it as a reference in the next few years. You may even be able to make some smart feature or product platform decisions based on this data. I'm sure we'll be able to persuade Matt to keep us updated from time to time, but don't forget where you save this article when you are done with it! You'll need it again for reference, no doubt.

Remember, you can always find this issue and every other recent past issue of ID online at www.informationdisplay.org. And with that, I wish you well and look forward to seeing everyone in Los Angeles in May. •