Flexible display market to exceed $100m

Paul Boughton

It’s been said that flexible things bend, but don’t break. That’s certainly true in the flexible-display market, where suppliers have found it virtually impossible to break through numerous obstacles hindering their attempts to transform promising technologies into high-volume products.

But despite facing an array of challenges, ranging from technical issues to market forces, the flexible display barrier soon will be broken, yielding a hundred-million-dollar market within five years, iSuppli Corp. predicts.

Global market revenue for flexible display panels will reach $339 million in 2013, rising at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 83.5 per cent from $5 million in 2006, according to iSuppli. Market revenue will break the landmark $100 million level in 2011. Unit shipments will rise to 198 million in 2013, up from 364,000 in 2006.

Not all ‘flexible’ displays need to be truly flexible. Various degrees of flexibility can be discerned:

* Flat displays are made on plastic or another non-glass backplane, but only for the benefit of lightness or ruggedness.
* Formed displays are bent once, such as a curved automobile dashboard, but do not flex afterwards.
* Flexible displays may be bent or flexed during use, but not over a range that includes folding or rolling.
* Rollable displays are as flexible as fabric.

True flexibility/rollability will appear in displays with small shipments in 2008, and will to become a $59 million market in 2013, iSuppli predicts.

“Flexible displays are expected to be prominent at the Society for Information Display (SID) 2006 International Symposium, Seminar and Exhibition in San Francisco next week, with companies including E Ink Corp. and SiPix Imaging, Inc. showing their wares,” said Kim Allen, director of technology and strategic research for iSuppli.

“Early applications are appearing in simple direct-drive displays on flat plastic, such as a small indicator display made by E Ink for a USB drive. Electronic point-of-purchase displays and electronic display cards also are reaching the market. These will provide early revenue for the development of larger and/or more sophisticated displays such as those for e-readers, signage and, ultimately, consumer electronics,” Allen added.

Prospects for products like these are promisingalthough the timing of their market deployment still depends on technical and manufacturing developments Allen said. Simple flexible displays on plasticprimarily electrophoretic typesare just beginning to be produced in quantities approaching high volume. Displays intended to flex or roll during use have been demonstratedand may reach the market in several yearspending further developments in the backplane and fabrication process."

Beyond electrophoretica considerable range of choices for flexible displays are being mapped out and explored.

The flexible display medium could be LCDOLEDelectrochromic or several other types. Thisand the intended applicationdetermine the need for additional flexible components such as a backlightcolor filteror battery. With such a large spectrum of materialsdisplay typescomponents and processesit is not surprising that optimal configurations have not been settled upon.

One advantage promoting the market growth of flexible displays is that they can enable totally new markets. Advertising panels that wrap around cornersor truly paper-like electronic paper require flexibility in the same way that mobile PCs required TFT-LCDs. Serving as the exclusive solution for a market is a recipe for growth.

Howevereven with the lure of these marketsdisplay developers have some disincentives to invest in flexible versions of their technologies. If glass-based versions begin to gain market tractionflexible versions can seem like a distraction.

In the early days of the OLED marketmost players talked casually about moving to flexible OLEDs within a few years. Howevernow that the glass-based OLED panel market is approaching $1 billion in size and the challenges of flexible OLEDs have been revealedmany fewer companies talk about shifting to flexible. Similarlywith the rising success of electrophoretic on glass in products such as Sony Corp’s Librieit can be more beneficial to bring in this revenue than to push into new areas immediately.

Another challenge for flexible displays is the huge amount of investment required in manufacturing infrastructure. At this timevery little capacity exists for the production of panels on flat plasticmuch less genuinely flexible panels made by printing or employing roll-to-roll processing. Unless lines are builtor glass lines are convertedthe volume in iSuppli’s forecast cannot be achieved.

Finallythe flexible display market faces a vast unknown. What will end users really do with flexible displays? Although many theoretical possibilities existno killer app is evident for flexible displaysand it is likely that people will devise surprising uses once the panels are on the market in greater volume.

Although the market timeline for flexible displays is long-termthe level of activity presently indicates strong interest and continued innovation. With so much attention focused on the areasuppliers should be able to overcome market disincentives and manufacturing challenges and find high-volumelucrative applications for flexible displaysiSuppli believes.

For more informationvisit www.isuppli.com