The Pace of Innovation in the New Year

Stephen P. Atwood

Happy New Year and welcome to 2011. It is exciting to begin another year here with Information Display magazine. In fact, this issue begins my 6th year as Executive Editor, and I'm very proud to be part of this prestigious publication. Over the past 5 years, we have printed hundreds of articles covering very nearly every conceivable aspect of the display industry, and a great many of these articles have made truly innovative disclosures that you would have been unlikely to learn about from any other media source. This is especially true for leading-edge developments that sometimes take several more years to become commercially prominent.

Each year, we choose our issue themes based on our best assessment of the future direction of the industry and the topics we perceive to be "hot." Some topics, such as LCDs and flexible displays, are perennials that will clearly continue for years to come. Others, such as touch, 3-D, OLEDs, and TV technology, are more recent additions that represent the specific trends of the industry over the last couple of years. Some topics, such as optical metrology or portable displays, have not returned this year. The former is a field that enjoys a small but dedicated following and makes critical contributions to displays. However, there was little new to report this year except for the ongoing important efforts by the ICDM to develop the release of IDMS version 1.0, which we hear will finally make it out of committee in 2011. Portable displays are ubiquitous and have thoroughly fulfilled their promise over the recent years. Industry emphasis has now turned to flexible and ultra-low-power displays, which is why we added this fairly new focus in 2010 and will continue to follow it in 2011.

Which brings us to this month's issue theme: films and coatings. This is a new topic for us, but one that reflects one of the least recognized but most critical components in the supply chain for LCDs and other display technologies. A typical cell-phone display can use as many as six separately engineered films, while commercial televisions may use more than a dozen discrete films and coating components. The vast majority of these components address light management and viewing-angle enhancement requirements, but engineered films can also be used for electromagnetic shielding, surface-durability improvements, and even the integration of touch within the structure of the display.

We were fortunate to have assistance with this issue from guest editor Ion Bita, a staff engineer and manager for the Display Technology Center at Qualcomm MEMS Technologies. With his assistance, we were able to feature articles from some of the most important names in films and coatings, including 3M, Dupont, and HP.

In our first feature article this month, "Getting the Light Through: TFT-LCD Optical Films," author Paul Semenza provides a great survey of the many different types of light-management films in use today to improve the performance of TFT-LCDs. From polarizers to diffusers, prism films, and others, Paul not only gives us the application landscape but also provides a very insightful look at the marketplace for these components as well.

While we're on the subject of light-management films, our next contribution comes from the recognized leader in brightness-enhancement films – 3M. Authors John Schultz and Bret Haldin share with us a number of new film innovations in their article, "Market Evolution and Demand for Thin Films: Projective-Capacitive Touch and EMI Management." With a combination of historical context and a survey of the new innovative structures being developed by 3M, the authors paint a nice portrait of some of the interesting ways new film designs can enhance displays.

Roll-to-roll manufacturing processes for applying liquid coatings on flexible substrates have been a staple of the materials industry for decades. Recent innovations have included concepts for printing OLED and other display materials onto flexible substrates to make high-volume low-cost displays. Now HP has developed a roll-to-roll methodology for printing multiple layers of proprietary electronic inks of primary subtractive color-ants to make what it terms "electrokinetic media." Authors Jong-Souk Yeo et al., from HP Labs, describe this development in "Paper-Like Electronic Media: The Case for R2R-Processed Full-Color Reflective Displays." There are many interesting facets to this development, including the possibility of manufacturing reflective active-matrix displays on flexible backplanes with transparent oxide transistors. But for me, the most intriguing is the concept of making color not by using conventional R-G-B discrete reflective regions, but by layering electrically switchable layers of C-M-Y that can be individually addressed to become transparent or opaque in at least eight discrete gray levels each. This novel approach could be one of those ideas that changes the way we look at engineering reflective displays.

Finally this month, imagine being able to fabricate an active-matrix OLED display entirely with a conventional coating process such as nozzle jet printing. In their article titled "Solution Coating Technology for AMOLED Displays," authors Reid Chesterfield, Andrew Johnson, Charlie Lang, Matthew Stainer, and Jonathan Ziebarth from DuPont Displays describe their very clever and well-engineered process to fabricate complete AMOLED pixels, which they demonstrated in finished displays at Display Week 2010. I think their analysis is impressive, and this accomplishment obviously involved a great deal of dedicated work. At the end, the process itself appears almost deceptively simple to implement, and I am looking forward to seeing more progress and hopefully commercialization in the near future.

For many of us, 2010 was a tough year in business terms. There is economic growth out there, but the gains are hard-won, and the business of displays is far from fully predictable these days. I do not know at press time of this issue how the full year will net out in terms of commercial sales and revenue for TVs and other electronics, but based on the recently announced reductions in output at some major LCD manufacturers, I do not think the numbers will be awe-inspiring. The same may go for the industrial and specialty markets, though I believe those are showing more promise for sustained growth. I hope we will not need to endure another year of halting starts between short bursts of recovery, which can be draining on any business team. It is hard to make investments in new technology when the timeline to achieve the required economic return is unpredictable. It is also hard to make hiring decisions when the revenue forecast is foggy. Expansion and investment are the keys to capitalizing on the recovery, but you need capital and cash flow, which makes every new undertaking riskier and more uncertain than it should be. Nonetheless, as you read through the rest of this issue, I hope you get re-inspired to tackle some tough problems of your own and realize that regardless of the business climate, it is clear that innovation is alive and well, especially in the less-publicized corners of the display business such as films and coating technology. •