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Looking for the Ultimate in Display Technology

7/15/2011

Barbara Jorgensen

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but what do a leading EMS, two universities, and the US Department of Energy have in common? They are all working separately on technologies that, if combined, will lead to the ultimate solution in display technology.

This week, EMS Sanmina-SCI Corp. (Nasdaq: SANM) entered into a manufacturing agreement with solar inverter maker KACO new energy Inc.; MIT demonstrated solar panels that can be printed on paper; and eMagin, the University of Rochester, and the US Department of Energy are partnering to develop the next generation of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs).

OLED is a technology that enables displays to be developed on flexible substrates. Someday, proponents of OLED displays promise, users will be able to roll up solar-powered displays into a cigar-sized tube and take them along wherever they go.

It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. OLEDs are already extensively used for displays on smartphones, cameras, and other electronics products. OLEDs, which need little to no backlighting, can actually be sprayed onto glass, plastic, or other substrates. This allows a display to be flexible, and OLEDs are particularly good displays to use in bright sunlight because, unlike LCDs, they don't fade. That's because OLEDs don't require the same lighting sources that most displays do.

So far, the use of OLEDs for displays has been limited because their quality is best when used on small screens. But a number of companies, including eMagin, have been working on improving both OLEDs and manufacturing technologies so they can be used on bigger-area displays.

Another barrier to widespread OLED adoption is the materials do require some kind of energy to boost them into emitting light. To date, this has required the attachment of a layer of circuits -- similar to those in LCDs -- to keep the OLEDs lit.

Andrew G. Sculley, president and CEO of eMagin noted in a press release:

While OLEDs are giving consumers efficient, brighter and faster electronic displays, about 80 percent of light is trapped inside the device and is wasted. Therefore, the partnership [with the U of R and the DoE] will seek to drastically improve the amount of useful light emitted from the device by developing technologies that use nano-particle based plasmonic scattering of light.

Better yet, OLEDs could actually be solar-powered. This week, MIT researchers demonstrated solar panels can be printed on substrates such as paper. According to an article on CNET.com, the paper photovoltaic arrays are created through an oxidative chemical vapor deposition process at temperatures less than 120 degrees Celsius. Additionally, says CNET:

Ordinary uncoated paper, cloth, or plastic can be used. The researchers printed solar cells on a layer of PET plastic, folded it 1,000 times, and found it would still work.

Multiple layers and a paper mask are used to print the cells in a vacuum chamber. MIT says the procedure is nearly as cheap and easy as inkjet printing.

The technology is years away from commercialization and efficiency is only about 1 percent. But the researchers hope to increase that dramatically by experimenting with different materials.

The team has demonstrated the printing technique with regular printer paper, tissue, tracing paper, and even newsprint that had already been printed.

To make flexible, solar-powered OLED displays viable, however, mass production capabilities will be needed. EMS Sanmina-SCI is working with inverter maker KACO toward reducing the costs of manufacturing solar-powered products. Vince Lucia, VP operations, at KACO, said in a press release:

As KACO grows in the U.S. market, the company needed to make sure that neither price nor lack of inventory would be a barrier for U.S. distributors. Sanmina-SCI gave KACO the U.S. manufacturing footprint, global supply chain, and logistical support needed to meet our cost and delivery objectives.

In order to meet KACO's objectives, the release adds, Sanmina-SCI established a dedicated core team for new product introduction, set up a new, dedicated manufacturing line, performed design-for-assembly analyses, designed custom toolsets, created detailed documentation, and established a new independent global supply chain and logistics support.

Display technology is increasingly becoming a key component -- and a key differentiator -- in all electronics products: look at how Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) is shoring up its supply of iPad displays. (See: Apple Defies Risk-Management Convention.) OLED is a technology that can overcome a number of challenges currently faced by display makers, chiefly, power consumption. If at some point the electronics industry can combine power-savings, flexibility, and manufacturing prowess, OLED technology could be a game-changer.


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