OLEDs Shine In Phones, TVs, Lights

Organic light-emitting diode technology is finding its way into more products.

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OLEDs are coming—everywhere.

While the new iPhone 7 models do not have organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays, those handsets are likely to be the last Apple will offer before it makes the smartphone transition to OLED displays next year.

The Apple Watch, however, does have a flexible OLED display with a sapphire crystal cover or an Ion-X glass cover, and the Apple Watch Series 2 also boasts an OLED display, said to be brighter than its predecessor.

Whatever is going on at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., and in the company’s factories overseas, it is clear that OLEDs are enjoying wider adoption and sterling growth. Research and Markets predicts the worldwide OLED market will enjoy a compound annual growth rate of 14.7% from now to 2020.

OLED televisions are getting bigger and brighter, with hefty price tags to boot. LG Electronics last month started selling the LG Signature OLED TV G6 model, which boasts a 77-inch screen. Introduced at the International Consumer Electronics Show in January, the TV retails for $20,000. Such prices will come down, of course, as all new technologies do.

For all the attention paid to OLED TVs, the product that is getting a dramatic makeover with OLED display technology is the smartphone. The latest Samsung and LG handsets all have OLED displays.

One of the attributes of OLEDs is their flexibility, which is being seen in smartphones and TVs.

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Fig. 1. OLED design. Source: Lightrabbit.co.uk

“The most important trend is the transition to flexible displays, which is something we predicted two years ago,” says Guillaume Chansin, an analyst and consultant with IDTechEx Research. “Another major trend is the development of materials and manufacturing technologies that could allow cheaper OLED TVs. Right now, OLED TVs are priced in the high end of the market.”

IDTechEx Research forecasts the OLED display market will increase from almost $16 billion in 2016 to $57 billion in 2026. Plastic and flexible OLEDs represent a $2 billion market this year, growing to $18 billion in 2020, according to the firm. Most of those are used in smartphones and smartwatches. Samsung Display and LG Display are both committing billions of dollars to expand their OLED production capacities.

“The OLED display market is growing significantly, and as a result major display manufacturers are investing in additional production capacity. So we are in a phase where the market is limited by supply,” Chansin notes. “If Apple decides to adopt OLED in future iPhones, the demand will be much higher.”

He adds, “Smartwatches, including the Apple Watch, use predominantly OLED displays. Also, the virtual-reality headsets that are hitting the market this year are also based on OLED. In lighting applications, we see slower growth because LED lightbulbs are very competitive.”

OLED lighting is an area that doesn’t get much attention in the tech press. That may be changing in the near future. ResearchMoz predicts the worldwide OLED lighting panel market will show a CAGR of 70.29% between 2014 and 2019.

The ranks of OLED display manufacturers look to be on the rise. “Samsung Display and LG Display have been the leaders. However, other manufacturers want to catch up. Foxconn has made their first major investment in OLED since acquiring Sharp, so I think we will see more competition soon,” Chansin observes.

This fast-growing market has naturally attracted suppliers of manufacturing equipment and OLED materials. Applied Materials is a leading vendor on the equipment side, while Universal Display has been serving the materials market for some two decades.

“TVs obviously are getting larger and larger, and smartphones, as well, have gotten larger,” says Max McDaniel, chief marketing officer for Display and Web Products at Applied. Flexible OLEDs are “enabling the display to get even bigger within the same total form factor” of smartphones, he notes.

The revenue from McDaniel’s business unit doubled between 2013 and 2016, thanks to new products and expansion in industry production capacity. Applied last month introduced a high-resolution inline electron-beam review system for OLEDs and ultra-high-definition LCDs. The company said six of the top 10 display manufacturers in the world have ordered the new EBR system. Tianma Micro-Electronics of China is among the mobile display makers attesting to the performance of the system.

In addition to that product, Applied has “two more products in the pipeline,” McDaniel says, without elaborating. These new products “will triple our TAM [total addressable market].”

The cost of playing in this market is rising, though, as the technology evolves.

“There are more layers and more complicated layers in OLEDs than in amorphous LCDs,” McDaniel says. Applied is offering low-temperature polysilicon and metal oxide processes for OLED fabrication, alternatives to the amorphous silicon found in LCDs. Where LCDs are “component-heavy” in their bill-of-materials, OLEDs are “process-heavy,” he says. Applied’s equipment allows manufacturers to encapsulate the OLED materials in displays, providing a longer lifetime for the products.

“The total cost of OLED is going to be less than the LCD,” McDaniel predicts.

In addition to the adoption of OLED displays in smartphones, the technology is making its way into other products, such as automotive electronics, according to McDaniel. OLEDs represent “the perfect application for virtual reality,” he says, providing more realistic imagery that doesn’t provoke motion sickness in VR users. OLEDs also will find their way into augmented-reality products and wearable gadgets, McDaniel says.

Janice DuFour, Universal Display’s vice president of technology commercialization and general manager of the PHOLED material sales business, touts her company’s phosphorescent OLED technology, which is licensed to display manufacturers and other suppliers of materials. Universal Display, which trades on the Nasdaq Global Select Market under the OLED symbol, this year signed up Tianma Micro-Electronics as an OLED patent licensee and purchaser of materials.

Universal Display spent about $97.5 million this year to acquire BASF’s OLED intellectual property assets. In July, the company purchased Adesis, a contract research organization, for about $33 million in cash.

Samsung Display is Universal Display’s largest customer, accounting for 62% of its 2015 revenue. Its second biggest customer, believed to be LG Display, represented 25% of revenue last year.

“The growth of smartphones is a key trend” in industry adoption of OLED technology, DuFour says. “OLEDs had a cost disadvantage to LCDs,” she adds, until there was “a structural change” in manufacturing technology. “Samsung began producing OLEDs at parity with LCDs. That will change. OLEDs will have the cost advantage over LCDs.”

Wearables represent another opportunity for OLED use, DuFour says, since OLEDs can “flexible, conformal, built on plastic.” The lighting market could take off with the adoption of white OLEDs, she adds. Auto displays are another potential growth application.

Color, energy efficiency, and lifetime are the key parameters for OLEDs, according to DuFour. “Fluorescent OLED technology is the incumbent,” she says. Phosphorescent OLED technology can offer red and other colors that customers want. “We continue to improve the energy efficiency of our colors.”

Among the megatrends in the display technology are rugged OLEDs, flexible displays, and truly transparent displays, the Universal Display executive notes. “Transparency doesn’t work well in other display technologies,” DuFour says, yet it could be realized with OLEDs.

In addition to automotive and VR displays, OLEDs could soon be found in displays on medical equipment.

So, what kind of OLEDs are dominating in the market? There are active-matrix OLEDs (AMOLEDs) and flexible OLEDs (FOLEDs). IDTechEx’s Chansin says, “Most of them can be labeled AMOLEDs, including the flexible type. OLED displays that are not AMOLED are only found in small, monochrome displays such as fitness trackers. Currently you can find AMOLED on glass and AMOLED on plastic (flexible or rigid). We predict that the glass-based AMOLED displays will quickly lose market share in favor of the plastic-based type.”

The bottom line: The outlook for this technology is bright. Organic light-emitting diodes will be showing up soon in your phone, your car, your home, your office—even your hospital room.

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