Production bottleneck means flexible OLEDs will have to wait

While the likes of Samsung and LG have been wowing the hordes at CES with new mammoth OLED screens, research continues into the next generation of the flexible OLED displays.

With distinct contrast, brightness and image lag improvements over LCD displays research labs are hurrying development of another of the useful attributes of OLED screens – the ability to create flexible screens.

OLED screens are popular in high end applications including smartphones and tablets, so there is potential for bendable screens at this size. Indeed, with the panel industry on its backside, the boost to the supply chain flexible OLEDs would provide would be very welcome aside from consumer interest.

Various prototypes have emerged during 2011, however researchers at the Holst Centre and Imec believe that we are still a few years away from actually seeing such devices on shelves and in our pockets.

They are attempting to develop economically scalable routes to commercialising production.  This involves looking for cheaper production methods to create higher quality devices for the screen cover and TFT backpanel.

While research into flexible displays is a top priority for many companies, according to researchers at the Holst Centre there is still work to be done to meet a consensus over production methods.

“Many groups have been looking into different technology options, the market is beginning to appear but no clear answer as to which production method is to be used has been decided so far,” Gerwin Gelinck, Program Manager Flexible OLED Displays at the Holst Centre, told TechEye.

“The two main issues at the moment are that OLED’s downgrade if they are exposed to water and also there are problems with operational deterioration over time,” Gelinck continued. “These are the two main bottlenecks to the commercialisation of OLED screens.”

Big name TV manufacturers have been rushing to complete work on commercially ready large scale sets, but there is still a long way before similar leaps are made with flexible displays.

“To make flexible displays into a product you have to ensure that barriers can stop water from getting through,” Gelinck told us. “While this has been by the likes of Samsung and LG in their recently announced OLED display, this has been done with glass meaning manufacturing at a high temperature.  In order to produce flexible screens on a plastic substrate you need lower production temperatures that can still create a barrier.

“Also, there is the operational issue of deterioration over time, and many prototypes have been deteriorating quickly.  If we know how it will change and this is predictable we can compensate however.  Both the materials and processes are improving.”

But it seems that there may be at least one or two more CES’ to go before we hear manufacturers enthuse about flexible devices: “It is likely to be two to three years before plastic substrates are mastered in the same as the glass products that LG and Samsung have revealed. 

“This is because we need to see what kind of reliability there is with the technology and the lifetime of a display needs to be proven,” Gelinck said.