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[Display Dynamics] “Soluble” AMOLED technology, optimal method for large-sized AMOLED TV

January 01, 2015

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The active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLED) industry has developed since the end of the 2000s when Samsung Display Co. started mass production of small- and medium-sized AMOLED panels. The AMOLED panel industry had grown significantly between 2010 and 2013, thanks to growing adoption of AMOLED panels in smartphones (in particular, the Galaxy S series). However, as the small- and medium-sized AMOLED panel market depends heavily on smart devices produced by Samsung Electronics Co., it has been hit hard by the latest sluggish sales of smart devices of Samsung Electronics.

To address this situation, the industry should seek to lower the dependence on Samsung Electronics for the small- and medium-sized AMOLED panels (or to diversify AMOLED panel customers) and to find industries that can create new demand. 
Considering the sluggish sales of small- and medium-sized AMOLED panels, the AMOLED TV market is a key to the success of the future AMOLED panel industry in terms of expansion into new markets,

Developments on AMOLED TV panels have been ongoing, but none have been up to commercialization level yet. With the existing fine metal mask (FMM) method, there are too many hurdles in the mass production of large-sized AMOLED TV panels. Hence, panel makers have been coming up with alternatives such as white OLED (WOLED) and “soluble” AMOLED panels for TV panels that can be mass produced, but there are no companies that are close to mass producing these panels. 

In this regard, IHS has published three articles to review the “soluble” AMOLED technology as an alternative to mass produce AMOLED TV panels.

The last two articles dealt with a definition of the “soluble” AMOLED, its manufacturing process, the necessity of developing it, introduction to the companies developing it, and the issues with the development of the “soluble” AMOLED panel as well as the development flow. This article seeks to discuss whether WOLED and “soluble” AMOLED will be alternatives to the FMM method and whether there is a chance of commercializing these panels into TV products.

How are the preparations going for the mass production of WOLED panels?

The mass production of AMOLED panels under the FMM method is faced with multiple problems dealing with the need for larger equipment and poor deposition efficiency. That’s why most panel makers are giving up on or postponing development. 

As one alternative, WOLED technology is being developed for the mass production of large-sized AMOLED panels. WOLED has an organic light-emitting layer structure in which more or less 15 layers (including two to three color emissive layers) are deposited by lamination. To this end, white light is created in the organic light emitting layer, and that white light goes through a color filter to create red, green and blue (RGB) colors. 
Since WOLED creates RGB through a color filter and has a laminated structure, an open mask process is required. Therefore, the deposition efficiency is high and the process is relatively easy compared to the FMM process. In addition, it is relatively stable when processed in large-sized equipment. In theory, WOLED has many advantages in terms of production cost and in the level of difficulty, but it has some problems with yields and has to use a color filter, compromising on some benefits of the AMOLED, such as great color reproduction. 

Currently LG Display Co. is the company that is most eager to develop WOLED panels, and also has past experience in releasing a WOLED TV (through LG Electronics Co.) in 2012. That product came out at an extremely high price tag of $9,000, and given the specifications, margin, and price, it was difficult to see the product as a consumer electronic good. LG Display had released WOLED TV panels, but has yet to come up with follow-up products to attract consumers. 

LG Display is continuing its research and development to come up with a commercially valuable product. In particular, it is pushing forward with the development of a three-stack (device in which the light emitting layer has three stacks) ultra high-definition (UHD) panel. LG Display aims to mass produce it at the end of 2014 and expects to release a TV product in the first half of 2015 at the latest. However, there is a good chance that this product will also be high priced, but with little or no differences with the LCD products in terms of specifications. Thus, it is expected that the new TV product will have little appeal for consumers. 

LG Display has delayed the mass production of WOLED panels because of the low yields and unstable performance. In particular, the yields of the oxide TFT substrate used as a backplane is significantly low, causing an issue. The company had improved the yields of the oxide TFT to some extent in early 2014 by tackling the degasing problem and conductor issue with different materials and a compensating circuit. However, with the developments on UHD panels, other problems surfaced and the yields fell greatly. In addition, the yields for deposition is also only at the level where it is applicable for initial-stage mass production.

Hence, although LG Display has boasted that it would start its mass production in 2015, it seems that it has a lot to overcome before actual commercialization.

Apart from LG Display, BOE Optoelectronics Technology Co. in China is developing WOLED panels, and so did Samsung Display. However, there are no other companies that seem to be up to par for mass production.

How are the preparations going for the mass production of “Soluble AMOLED?

The “soluble” AMOLED, which is another alternative to mass produce AMOLED TVs, is being developed by LG Display, BOE, AU Optronics Corp., Samsung Display, and Japan Display Inc. (JDI), but like the WOLED, there are no companies that seem close to mass production. Out of all the companies, LG Display is the one with a more chance, preparing for mass production after 2016 based on some development results. (Please refer to the two previous articles for the details of producing “soluble” AMOLED panels.)
Most companies are still at R&D phase of a research institute, and have no clue as to how they will apply the technology to mass production. The device structures currently being developed only apply the soluble process for the bottom part of an emitting layer (EML), such as a hole transport layer (HTL), a red layer, and a green layer, while processing the upper part of the EML, such as a blue layer and an electron transporting layer (ETL), with evaporation. 

In order to develop a product boasting of the maximized advantages of the “soluble” AMOLED, but still competitive in terms of performance and price, it is necessary to apply the soluble process even on the EML part. However, unfortunately there are no companies that have gone this far. 

Like the WOLED, LG Display has the best chance at commercialization of the “soluble” AMOLED, and the company has partnered with Merck Group to release a “soluble” AMOLED panel based on ink jet printing in 2016. However, considering the conditions so far, even if the product is released in 2016, it is highly likely that the product would find its situation no better than the WOLED product, meaning that there will be more time needed before actual commercialization. 

Chances of commercialization for WOLED and “soluble” AMOLED TVs

Whether it be WOLED or “soluble” AMOLED, in order to enter the AMOLED TV market, many technical issues must first be addressed. 

As of now, there is no way to be sure that these issues will be addressed nor about the exact timing. Still, one thing is clear that if it takes too long to address the issues, the chances of the AMOLED TV being well received in the market as a promising product will fall greatly. 

The basis for this judgment is the rapid development of the LCD, among other risks. LCD technology is advancing continuously, and already with a UHD high resolution product, there are continuous developments in terms of quality. In theory, an AMOLED panel is a level up from a LCD panel in terms of color purity and color reproduction, but there is no telling how well an actual product will be able to appeal to customers with such improvements. The AMOLED industry already failed to persuade consumers to feel the extra benefits of the small- and medium-sized AMOLED panels compared to the LCD counterparts. Thus, it is a question as to whether the average consumer (not expert) will be able to recognize the actual premium quality of the AMOLED TV when it is released, compared to the LCD TV. And the AMOLED TV will have less chance of beating the LCD TV as time goes by. 

Moreover, even if the consumer can feel the difference, another question is whether they will be willing to pay the extra price. In theory, the materials cost and investment for AMOLED panels may turn out to be low, but realistically speaking, there is no guarantee that the yields related to the backplane, deposition, and “soluble” process of the AMOLED TV (realistically, many years are needed to reach the golden yield rate) could be secured. Also, considering investment, development, and materials costs, there is a high chance that the production cost will be relatively high. Meanwhile, LCD products are produced at facilities where depreciation cost is no longer added with stable yields and under an optimized industry structure, making more difficult for the AMOLED to compete with the LCD in terms of price. 

Of course the benefits of AMOLED may turn out to be far greater on TV, but considering the current situation, there are doubts as to whether the AMOLED TV will be able to gain more appeal with consumers than the LCD TV. There is also a slim chance of the AMOLED TV being price competitive. (There are greater concerns on the WOLED as it is even more difficult to ensure higher quality.)

In other words, if the LCD panel quality is high enough to offset the advantages of the AMOLED when the AMOLED TV panel (RGB type) starts to be mass produced, the AMOLED TV panel may not be able to gain a large market share, or even worse, it may just become a fad. 

All in all, in order to overcome the barriers of the LCD and enter the TV market, it seems that the faster WOLED or “soluble” AMOLED TV is released in the market, the higher growth opportunities they can obtain. Especially, for the WOLED, timing seems a more pressing concern.

As of now, it seems that WOLED only has a chance if it enters the TV market at latest in 2015 when UHD LCD TVs are set to grow exponentially. If WOLED TVs cannot compete with the LCD in terms of price in 2016, the future of WOLED TVs seems grim. 
The “soluble” AMOLED TV has some more time compared to the WOLED TV, but that time frame will only last for at most two years, and in 2018, it will have to have price competitiveness to compete with the LCD TV. 

Since it is highly likely that WOLED and “soluble” AMOLED will become temporary products that do not stand a chance against the LCD, there is little time left for AMOLED TV panel makers. 

Research by Market
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