The Prospects for Flexible Glass Have Never Been Better
Published: January 11, 2013 Category: Glass and Glazing Advanced Materials
In the past year, we have seen the flexible glass suppliers expand their commercialization efforts.  Corning officially launched Willow Glass in 2012, its 100-μm-thick material designed for lightweight, cost-efficient display products. AGC is offering a 100-μm-thick flexible glass material for "sheet-to-sheet" handling.  And Schott's D 263 eco product is available in sheet form with thicknesses down to 25 μm.
 
In its earliest days, flexible glass was often associated with the intrinsically flexible display concept.  This connection is natural; one advantage of flexible glass is that it offers the superior performance of glass – high barrier performance, durability, and clarity – but in a flexible format.  But unfortunately for manufacturers of flexible glass there do not yet seem to be any good demand-side reasons for such displays.
 
Mobile Displays Will Drive Adoption of Flexible Glass
Failing a sudden insurgent interest in intrinsically flexible displays, NanoMarkets believes that flexible glass will be best positioned as a thinner and lighter weight alternative to the rigid display glass. This opportunity is driven by the explosion in mobile displays, which, by their nature, place a high value on both thinness and lighter weight. Smart phones are already ubiquitous, and their average size is increasing; meanwhile, tablets are booming, too.
Flexible glass can tap into existing trends (lightness and thinness) in mobile displays, and these applications can then serve as an entry point for flexible glass to address the huge mobile display market.
 
NanoMarkets’ forecasts suggest that sales of flexible glass for use in mobile displays will exceed $100 million by 2015, and reach nearly $450 million by the end of the decade. About half of these revenues will come from sales of the material for tablet applications, just under half will be attributable to mobile phones, and a smaller portion will come from notebooks and similar mobile display types.
 
And OLEDs Will Lead
Most of the displays that adopt flexible glass will be LCDs, which dominate the overall display market today.  Nonetheless, the opportunities for flexible glass in mobile displays may be the greatest in the OLED display sector:
 
• Small and medium OLED displays, with an emphasis on ever-thinner devices and lighter product weights, are the fastest growing primary display type in mass-market smartphones, tablets, and other mobile computing products.  Samsung is leading this market today with its Galaxy product line, but more and more manufacturers will be getting into the market over the next several years.  NanoMarkets believes that an emerging sector such as OLEDs is more likely adopt new materials than the much more mature LCD segment.
 
• Flexible glass may prove even more important to the market for larger area OLEDs, like OLED televisions (TVs). OLED TVs are competing to be the next big thing and are expected to – finally! – appear on the market in 2013-2014. Samsung, LG, AU Optronics, Sony, and Panasonic all have OLED TVs in various stages of development.  Importantly, these first generation OLED TVs are being made using bottom-emitting formats, in which the OLED devices are fabricated over a transparent thin-film transistor (TFT) array. 
 
Flexible glass can survive the TFT fabrication process, whereas plastic-based substrates and/or barrier films cannot. However to support larger size panels flexible glass must be created in larger widths than are generally available in current first generation flexible.  This is also an impediment to the current use of flexible glass in PV (see below). 
 
• Flexible glass also has a role to play in encapsulation of OLEDs, flexible or otherwise. OLEDs are extremely sensitive to degradation by moisture; they require very high performance encapsulation not achievable with currently available non-glass encapsulation systems. This need for high performance encapsulation in OLEDs is most acute in OLED lighting, which is expected to have lifetimes that are much longer than those of mobile displays and even OLED TVs.
 
NanoMarkets forecasts that revenues from flexible glass in the OLED market will top $4 million in 2013 and rise to over $280 million by the end of the decade.
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