Photo Credit: Forbes
There are few problems harder in technology than bringing a new type of display to market. Since the invention of television and the CRT in the early 1900s, it’s been successfully pulled off twice. First, with the plasma TV, which is on the verge of extinction. And, then, with the LCD that currently dominates every segment, from your living room to the smartphone. But some high end mobile devices, particularly those from Samsung use OLED screens, which promise a better image while sipping less power. For more than a decade electronics giants have tried — and mostly failed — to build bigger OLEDs so that they can be used as televisions. Tiny Kateeva, a startup in Menlo Park, Calif., is hoping its technology will be the game changer the industry needs.
OLED, or organic light-emitting diode, technology promises to solve the few remaining shortcomings of LCDs. Because the individual pixels in an OLED make their own light, a display can be very power efficient. That’s important on mobile, but also in a world increasingly looking to keep its high-tech amenities while going green. In addition, those pixels can vary their contrast widely between the darkest blacks and the brightest colors. Studies have shown a broad contrast ratio is the single-most important part of image quality.
The problem with OLEDs, though, is they’ve proved very difficult to manufacture, especially in large sizes. Samsung and LG each announced gorgeous 55-inch televisions in 2012, but neither brought them to market until more than a year later. And the prices are astronomical: the Samsung is listed for $9000, and the LG for $10,000. By comparison, the most expensive Sony LCD is $3,500 and it offers the benefits of “4K” technology which increases resolution fourfold over existing HD sets. While there is so far little programming that takes advantage, its worth noting that the current OLEDs don’t have 4K and so aren’t even state of the art. Sony had been pursuing its own OLED manufacturing venture with Panasonic, but the two recently dissolved the partnership and its unclear whether either of them will be able to produce a consumer TV anytime soon — if ever.
Since the early 2000s, manufacturers have made claims that OLEDs will soon be cheaper, eventually even challenging LCDs on price. It seemed too good to be true: videophile-level picture quality at mass-market price. And it has been. The past decade has been one broken promise after another from TV makers. LG and Samsung’s recent offerings represent the closest we’ve come but while the two models are widely praised by reviewers (myself included), they are simply priced too high. A decent 55-inch TV can be had for less than $1,000; it’s hard to suggest spending 10 times as much.
Kateeva, which has 68 employees on board after acquiring OLED Plus in Korea today, has some intriguing technology that could change the game — and level the playing field at the same time. First of all, it’s important to understand Kateeva is an equipment manufacturer, like Applied Materials in semiconductors, and not a display maker. Whatever they create will be sold to any willing buyers. That means it could wind up in the hands of Samsung, LG and Sony. At this point, the company is still trying to make its first big sale: “We don’t have any orders we can announce at this time,” CEO Alain Harrus told me last week. “We’re working really hard to get customers to buy our equipment.”
As to why someone would want to, that’s the second critical part of what Kateeva is doing. To date, all the OLEDs you’ve seen — whether on your Samsung phone, or one of the high-priced TVs — have been made using an expensive, wasteful, sloppy process. The OLED material is vaporized and then winds up on the screen once it re-forms into a solid. Merck, which supplies the chemicals that form the OLED material, believes this method has a dim future: “OLED production based on chemical vapor deposition can hardly be cost competitive to LCD,” it said in a recent presentation on the topic.
But Merck is much more bullish on using giant inkjet printers to “pattern” the OLED screens, a process that is much less wasteful and also will result in fewer failed attempts than the current process. In other words, the yield is higher using printing. For that reason, Kateeva calls its OLED printing equipment YIELDjet, and it’s a sight to behold. The machine is designed to operate in a pure nitrogen environment because OLEDs don’t like being exposed to the air during manufacture. The huge robotic printer could radically alter the economics of producing OLED TVs.
For more than a decade, giant companies have tried and failed to produce a viable inkjet printing solution for OLEDs. The difficulty has been in finding the right materials, which need to be different from the ones that can be used in the more “traditional” OLEDs. Beyond that, getting a machine that will succeed in producing a working OLED display almost every time is critical if there is any hope of catching up to LCD, which at this point is easy to manufacture.
Harrus believes his company’s technology means the time is coming for OLED. He says that transitioning to 4K is easy using Kateeva’s technology. The pixels per inch are actually quite low and easily handled by inkjet printing. He also sees an industry in transition not just to higher resolution. LCD got popular, ironically in part because too many fabrication plants were built in the 2000s to take advantage of the move to HDTV and the booming demand for laptops and flat-panel monitors. As a result, most people who made the actual screens — and even finished goods like TVs — didn’t profit much from building them.
He’s hoping that with those LCD plants depreciated, manufacturers will look to higher-value OLED and use Kateeva tech to make it possible. It’s worth noting that one reason you see OLED screens in top-end mobile devices is because those are expensive enough that putting a high-quality display in them is possible while keeping the devices profitable. Harrus hopes that at least the upper end of the TV market starts to resembles the premium smartphone market.
Merck, for its part, agrees with Harrus. It sees 10-15% of the overall display market adopting OLED by 2019. Merck has partnered with Epson, which knows a thing or two about inkjets, in an attempt to build its own printing solution. Like Kateeva, it’s not yet clear any display manufacture is willing to commit to their solution either.
But what is apparent is that for OLED to scale beyond the smallest screens, manufacturing will have to move to some sort of printing technology. Despite Samsung’s success with smartphone screens they are actually lagging behind LG in the television arena. At the recent CES 2014 in Las Vegas, LG showed off 5 different OLED TV models it promised to bring to market this year. LG’s tech is actually an interesting hybrid of its own, combining some techniques used to make LCD TVs with the best features of OLED. But it hasn’t proved especially scalable, either. LG is rumored to be contemplated an investment in a production fab later this year that could allow it to build more than 1 million TVs in 2015 — but no sooner.
Samsung, by contrast, had no explicit announcements at CES. The company seems to be struggling with a decision as to what technology it can use to transition its wildly successful LCD TV business to OLED, but is in no hurry to do so. And that’s a big challenge for Kateeva. Harris hopes that within 2 years, one or more of the major display manufacturers will be printing TVs using YIELDjet. It expanded into Korea to get a toehold near to LG and Samsung, while also cutting the distance to the major Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese display companies it hopes to make its customers. In the meantime, the TV business has struggled to give consumers a reason to buy a new set. Perhaps affordable OLEDs will yet provide that reason. Maybe even sometime soon.