IDTechEx has spent almost two weeks in Korea visiting executives at leading companies and attending conferences. Company profiles will be given in our Market Intelligence Portal over the coming weeks. In this article we summarise some of our observations from the country.
As the leading providers of OLED displays, there is huge interest in the on-going activities of Samsung and LG. Are they working on printed OLEDs? What backplane technology will succeed? When will flexible displays be commercial? As one may imagine, the companies are tight lipped on details of their immediate plans and a stop has been put on these companies announcing activities, given that there is so much at stake for them. However, here are a few observations from IDTechEx.
1. Broad range of research activities. Both companies are involved in a broad range of research and development activities, some of which may follow through to being commercialised and others will be dropped. Work is carried out in their research centres and in collaboration with research organisations and universities.
For example, at the ICFPE event in September in Korea, LG presentations covered examples of their work including an imprinting system for flexible displays; electrohydrodynamic jet printing for printed electronics; novel inspection systems; and laser patterning of ITO.
2. Focus on developing patterning/production and not materials. LCD panel makers were the first to lose money when the LCD market became flooded by subsidised panel makers in China. However, those earlier in the value chain continue to do handsomely well, supplying materials and equipment to all. OLEDs offer a new start, and both Samsung and LG do not wish to be caught in this position again and so intend to be involved in more parts of the value chain - right up to materials supply. However, most of the activity we see is not on material development - we see much more on methods of manufacturing and fabrication, testing and even equipment supply. This is hard enough to do as it is without having to work on materials development too - so that is being realized through acquisition - most recently being Samsung Cheil's acquisition of Novaled for example. There is strong acquisition appetite, which often initially manifests itself in the form of strategic investments in companies.
3. Conformal/flexible OLEDs are a priority, but fully rollable comes later. There has been a lot of news about flexible and rollable displays and their imminent market launch, but in our forecasts, IDTechEx is more skeptical. We do not think that these are imminently available in rollable form as the press may believe. However, displays which conform to a curved surface are more realistic in the short term and a high priority. Many applications envisaged include displays conforming to curved surfaces such as that of a car, displays on consumer electronics devices, white goods and more.
4. Hybrid electronics. Dr Kinam Kim, the CEO of Samsung Display, said that transfer technology is key to enabling "soft technology". By this he means high performance, "hard" electronics used today are transferred onto flexible substrates, which may also incorporate some flexible or printed components. For many applications some discrete components such as processor ICs are needed because these are not feasible to print yet. That leads to another opportunity that is undersupplied, at least in our view - the ability to interface hybrid electronics with printed components, which is surprisingly undersupplied.
Profitable SME companies
Compared to Japan, there is an increasing culture of innovative VC backed start up companies and SME enterprises. Many of these have quite good sales in the printed electronics sector. For example, HiCel is a $42million listed company where printed electronics forms one of three core business sectors. It uses printing and plating, or direct printing only, as an alternative to etching for flexible circuits, and is the largest producer of NFC antennas for smart phones, supplying companies such as Samsung and LG.
Another is InkTec, another SME listed company with sales of $74million with the printed electronics part of its business accounting for about 25% of that. InkTec's inks are used for the electrodes of touch panels, in addition to EMI shielding, antennas and flexible circuit boards.
Then there are young companies such as UniJet, a provider of total solutions focussing predominately on inkjet printing, which has shipped almost 200 machines into 20 different applications - and seeing rapid growth.
Many of the SMEs involved in printed electronics, along with the numerous research institutes in Korea, are focussed on manufacturing and processing - not surprising given that a huge amount of manufacturing that will be done in Korea and greater Asia. That work includes furthering expertise on vacuum systems, web handling, registration, cleaning etc.
Bright future for printed, organic and flexible electronics
Almost all we spoke to agreed that printed, organic and flexible electronics will be a big market. However, they are realistic about the timing of flexible OLED lighting, for example, agreeing with IDTechEx forecasts on the topic. Consumer electronics is the driving market for a lot of those involved in the topic, in particular touch panels, flexible circuits, antennas, OLED displays, TFT backplanes and ITO replacement.
While there is interest in global developments, many companies supplying materials, some providing equipment, and some actually printing devices here feel less need to market themselves globally because they believe the Asian market will be their dominate customer base. Indeed, several commented on the rising interest in the technology from Chinese based companies which represent a rapidly growing customer base.