Lessons from the Year That Was . . .


by Stephen P. Atwood

Every time I sit down to write the December editorial, I get a chance to consider the events of the previous year as well as look ahead to the coming year. For many of us, this past year brought challenges both economic and professional that we would rather not dwell on too long. For some, the sentiment may even be along the lines of "Good Riddance." However, before we say goodbye to 2009 we should at least be willing to acknowledge that sometimes adversity and hardship serve a positive role.

One example can be seen in the triumphs of many display businesses that have continued to innovate and grow their technology portfolios despite the downturn. While facing economic hardship, some companies made smart staffing and expense decisions, accepting the challenge to streamline their operations while not stifling their technology developments. These companies have now emerged with an even better business than they had before. You can spot them as the ones that continue to exhibit new products, influence the industry trends, lower the costs for adaptation of display technology, and set up world-class manufacturing facilities like the one pictured on the cover of this month's issue. Not all the winners are large; some are just small engineering or consulting firms, but they do typically have some key things in common, such as strong cash positions, good technology portfolios, a lean and aggressively motivated workforce, and senior leadership that is not afraid of failure but rather embraces challenge.

There is a contrasting trend I have seen illustrated by many companies when in the midst of an economic downturn. It starts by hunkering down as though they were under siege. They cut expenses, including staff, put technology developments on hold, and struggle to break even while minimizing loss of market share. Sometimes they have no choice because they lack enough cash or face crippling debt. These companies rarely survive a recession anyway. In few cases do those companies emerge from the crisis better positioned to succeed. However, there is another group that does essentially the opposite. They re-structure to minimize the cost of the less productive parts of their business while turning their remaining resources squarely to the goals of technology development and product innovation. They use the downturn as a chance to re-focus their energy and get ahead of the curve while their competitors are standing still. When the crisis is over, it is obvious they will emerge with better market share and less competition at the same time. It is these companies and their leaders that I admire most.

Consider the acquisition of E Ink by Prime View International. This deal was put together in May, just as the hardest period of the recession was looming. Although the eBook field was a hot topic around the water cooler, real sales were not record setting, and many product competitors were entering the space at the same time. A lot of deals were being scuttled and there was much handwringing about the lack of capital and optimism in the M&A world. However, both parties could see that a shakeout would only last a short time and the strongest product developers would emerge. Most of the new products being launched were based on some element of the E Ink system, and Prime View wanted to be positioned to be the supplier of choice for those and many more developers in the future.

Also this year, LG invested heavily (over US$500 million) in low-temperature poly-silicon (LTPS) TFT-LCD production, with the goal of having 20K-sheets/month glass start capacity by 2010. That's a lot of cash to tie up during a recession. Many smaller companies invested in LED-backlight retro-fit systems, and white-LED manufacturers achieved remarkable gains in light efficiency in the same time frame. New investments were also seen in handheld touch screens, overlays, and numerous portable display systems. Large-area LED display technology saw several new innovations, including distributed tiles or "meshes," as they are called, that can be used as distributed building blocks of addressable space. Not a new concept, but a very new embodiment. Finally, this was certainly a year in which OLED technology proved it will be worth waiting for, with heavy spending on commercialization at Samsung and its R&D partners combined with impressive technical announcements and demonstrations at all the major shows.

Countless other examples exist, many of them featured throughout the year in this magazine – proof enough that there are courageous companies are out there. We believe they will be rewarded.

Even more encouraging is the fact that many companies have recently made significant manufacturing investments, including building out new fab lines for LCDs, starting the world's first large-volume lines for OLED displays, making large-scale innovations in LTPS and flexible substrates, and achieving dramatic gains in capacity for eletrophoretic displays. Manufacturing is, of course, the obvious end game for almost all of the development work that we chronicle. A technology that cannot be manufactured in high volume for a reasonable cost rarely gets past the research phase at most companies. Sometimes new developments require new manufacturing methods to be realized, and it is frequently at this last stage where the largest part of the investment gets consumed. In this current economic climate, the fact that these investments are being made at all is a symbol of real courage and leadership.

The final thing I want to talk about this month is mentoring. The late Professor Randy Pausch talked and wrote about enabling dreams; his own and those of his students. It's not enough for each of us to "do;" we also need to be willing to impart our experiences on the next generation. By teaching and mentoring the next generation of engineers. We are enabling their dreams as well as giving them the tools to build the dreams of countless more people in other disciplines. We can't know in advance how each little piece of technology we touch will fit into the giant web of the future, but it is awesome to think that the things we do with displays can create unbelievable leverage for many kinds of growth in the future. From simple televisions came the tools for a whole new type of surgical discipline, as well as the windows for deep-space exploration, and other products that went on to spur the amazing economic developments of whole countries. All of these discoveries came about through the minds of students who were mentored until they became the mentors. Each generation grows on the knowledge of the previous and just a few minutes of your time could lead to an inspiration in someone else that becomes the next great achievement.

So, for the next few weeks, it's OK to have a little bit of "awe" in your work attitude – look at things less analytically and more emotionally. Share that energy and awe with those around you. Teach as you were taught and enable the dreams of as many people as you can!

It's a pleasure to introduce this month's issue focused on manufacturing technology and guest edited by our colleague, industry expert Greg Gibson. Greg has brought us two Frontline Technology features that highlight innovative manufacturing developments involving flexible substrates and I suggest you read his guest editorial first to appreciate the background for both articles and how they represent significant achievements in the flexible substrate space.

In our monthly Display Marketplace feature, Charles Annis and Paul Semenza from DisplaySearch provide us with a very comprehensive survey of the various technologies being employed by LCD manufacturers to improve light transmission, reduce power consumption, and improve manufacturing yields. Taken together, these various techniques, all at some level of commercial implementation today, are driving the next generation of high-efficiency LCD TVs.

This month we also have another installment in our continuing coverage of "green" technology examining the complicated issues surrounding recycling of electronic devices such as TVs and cell phones. There are numerous challenges to both implementing the many growing regulations as well as effectively enforcing them and it has left many manufacturers struggling to find the right balance between commercial interest, environmental responsibility, and limitation of liability.

From the Enabling Technology file comes another homework assignment we gave to Jenny Donelan, this time to report on the state of the art for low-temperature-polysilicon technology. As I mentioned earlier, LG has invested heavily in manufacturing capacity for LTPS and is betting on its unique characteristics to enable advanced display designs for mobile devices. In the mobile-display marketplace (screens 10-in. and less), about 32% are made with LTPS TFTs rather than a-Si. About 65% of all LTPS applications are mobile phones. While this is not a technology poised to skyrocket, because of the expense and difficulty of converting existing production lines, it has its space in enabling small-sized high-resolution LCDs as well as reducing power consumption and footprint.

We also have our regular departments this month, including a message from SID President Paul Drzaic, and some SID news on a recent honor bestowed on Dr David Fyfe and Professor Sir Richard Friend. I hope you enjoy this issue as much as we did assembling it. •