Why Solution Processing May Still Matter in
The OLED Industry
Published March 2013 by NanoMarkets Research
Not that many years ago it seems solution processing was being touted as the OLED’s future. “Printing” was the way to get OLEDs down in price to where they would become widely used.
The Short, Sad History of Solution-Processed OLEDs
Indeed, the arguments seemed hard to argue with:
- Solution processing is inherently less costly than vapor deposition and easier to scale to
larger substrate size. It is also highly compatible with R2R manufacturing; a long-term
dream of the industry.
- Material waste with solution processing is potentially much lower than in conventional
vapor-phase deposition processes. Important when expensive OLED materials are
So things should have gone well for solution-processed OLEDs. But they haven’t. Efforts to get printed polymer OLEDs out of the gate have moved only just slightly beyond the science project stage. Polymer OLEDs subsist mainly because of the huge resources that Sumitomo can bring to them. GE promised to be the first in the market with a reasonably priced OLED lighting panel using solution-processed small molecules. But things don’t seem to have gone well there either.
Worse. Samsung has shown up those who once said that solution processing was the only way to go in the OLED world, by turning the OLED cell phone display into a mass market; indeed the only OLED mass market to date.
And yet, some important firms continue to soldier on with solution processing. DuPont Displays, UDC, Sumitomo, Solvay, and Merck/EMD are all betting on solution deposition for future generations of OLEDs, and are actively developing OLED materials for inkjet printing, wetcoating, nozzle printing, aerosol jet printing, etc.
Most are expecting commercialization within the next year to 18 months. So the question has to be asked, is there some real value that solution processing can bring to the OLED sector? Or are the firms still dreaming of solution-processed OLEDs merely nostalgic or delusional?
Size Matters and So Does Solution Processing
The huge success of Samsung’s Galaxy phones with OLED displays has shown that OLEDs can compete extremely successfully against LCD displays. And ongoing speculation that Apple will also use OLEDs for iPhones and iPads in the near future shows that OLEDs have now established a level of credibility where such things can be said without being laughed at.
This is no mean feat. Various new display technologies have gone into battle against LCDs over the past few decades and all of them have until now been beaten back. The fact that OLEDs have done so well is remarkable in its way. However, this success remains confined to small- and medium-sized OLED displays. (Ask yourself why?)
From the perspective of the OLED materials sector – and as Exhibit 1 shows – this is not so bad. If OLEDs continue to grow in just these small- and medium-area displays, then NanoMarkets’ latest forecasts indicate that the market for functional OLED materials (emitter, host, blocking, transport, and injection materials) will grow from about $380 million in 2013 to a respectable $926 million by 2109.
Such numbers speak to the structure of the OLED materials sector going forward. There is enough here to interest firms such as BASF, DuPont, Merck, which are chasing after this market right now. But NanoMarkets believes that these firms are motivated by the possibility that OLED panels – both for lighting and for displays – could be a lot larger than they are now.
In Exhibit 2 we bring OLED TVs and OLED lighting into the forecasts, based on what we think is a plausible scenario for their deployment. OLED TVs have been demonstrated for at least five
years and have seen limited sales. They offer vibrant colors and an ultra-thin form factor. But these TVs are also extraordinarily expensive. Meanwhile, large OLED lighting OLED panels seem to be essential to bringing OLEDs into mainstream office lighting; crucial if OLED lighting is ever going to take off.
Based on our assumptions – and as shown in Exhibit 2 – when one includes both OLED TVs and OLED lighting, the value of the market jumps to about $1.8 billion by 2019, or twice the size of the materials market when only small and medium OLED displays are included. Beyond 2019, the success of large-panel OLEDs would mean a dramatically enhanced business opportunity for OLED material suppliers.
If large OLED panels can be created with a process that offers reasonable yields, then large revenues are the result. So size matters in two senses. The important thing to recognize here is that NanoMarkets’ projections are not based on exceptionally high expectations: Very modest penetration rates of the TV and lighting sectors will translate into big gains in addressable markets for OLED materials suppliers.
Could solution processing prove the key enabling technology that gets the materials industry to those modest gains?
NanoMarkets’ forecasts, portrayed in the Exhibits above, are also based on an assumption that OLEDs can be made to demonstrate cost-effective scalability. If this cannot be achieved then OLED TVs and OLED lighting will never become mainstream consumer items. One small defect can cause an entire large panel to fail, after all, and low yields guarantee that no one can make money on large OLEDs without charging exorbitantly high prices. As proof that we are still a long way from the goal here, consider what follows. OLED TVs: LG currently sells 55” OLED TVs at about $10,000 to $15,000 each in several markets and is planning to expand into additional markets over the next twelve months.
Meanwhile, Samsung is still saying that it will launch its own 55” OLED TV product late this year or early next, and Panasonic, Sony, Seiko Epson, and AUO are all planning to enter the OLED TV market soon. TVs that cost upwards of $10,000 each are clearly out of reach of the average consumer. For comparison, an average smart 55” LCD TV costs around $1,500 – $2,000. So even if OLEDs are sold at a premium based on their status as the “latest-greatest” technology, prices need to come down by a 5x factor. To date, however, low manufacturing yields in conventional vapor deposition processes are keeping costs (and prices) high.
Office lighting: The U.S. Department of Energy, (Bruce writes: Who did QMC just send Dots to?) estimates that OLED lighting is currently about 10 times too expensive to compete widely in general illumination in the workplace.
Cost reductions might be achieved by moving to higher generation production lines, although larger manufacturing facilities require investment by pioneering firms willing to take the risk. So far, only LG has really committed to building a full-scale plant for larger-area panels; LG is spending $650 million on a Gen-8 WOLED TV line, and the firm could use this line to accelerate progress on its efforts toward making larger-area OLED lighting panels as well.
But materials suppliers can enable cost reductions, too: organic layer formulations could be mademore stable and easier to deposit in uniform layers, cost-effective high performance encapsulation systems would reduce yield losses; and more conductive, transparent electrodes could reduce brightness non-uniformity and resistive loss (heating), especially in OLED lighting panels.
Solution Processing to the Rescue?
While any number of materials and manufacturing improvements could get the OLED industry part of the way to where it needs to be with regard to large panels, NanoMarkets believes that a major part of the manufacturing strategy that will get the OLED industry to the high-end revenue scenario that we show in Exhibit 2 will involve solution processing.
The point here is that we think there is enough in the old solution processing story to make this technology. Or in different words, solution processing may not have gotten us that far to date, but the problems associated with it can be fixed and are worth fixing.
Apart from purely technical considerations, one reason for being optimistic about solution processing’s future role in the OLED sector is that when NanoMarkets analyzed what was going on in solution processed OLEDs, we found a lot more than just collapsing research programs from a decade ago; although there were those too.
But there are also some bright new solution processing technologies that, we believe, will bring solution processing to the fore in the OLED sector in just a few years. And these newer programs are being masterminded – and paid for – by firms with deep pockets.
Thus, DuPont is known to be working with Samsung on solution processing for OLED TVs,
although their timeline for commercialization is unknown. However, at least one panel maker –
Pioneer, in partnership with Mitsubishi’s Verbatim brand – is planning to commercialize OLED
lighting panels made using solution processing in 2014. If successful, this team will be the first to market and may be the one that does what GE was unable to do. If Pioneer succeeds in this regard, it is even just possible that GE may jump back into the game.
Given this, NanoMarkets believes that, eventually, a shift from conventional vapor-deposition technology toward solution processing is highly likely with solution processing eventually taking up a sizeable share of the OLED market. (See Exhibit 3.). Should this scenario pan out, we anticipate that revenues from solution-processable OLED functional materials will grow from about $50 million this year to well over $800 million by 2019.