Where Are The Opportunities For Flexible Substrates?
Published: October 18, 2011 Category: Advanced Materials Emerging Electronics

NanoMarkets will be releasing a new report in November on flexibe substrates.  See here for details.  

Flexible electronics have attracted a great deal of interest in recent years. At least in theory, they offer a number of important advantages for displays, lighting, solar panels and sensors.  In addition, flexibility to some degree is implied in the notion of R2R processing.  Each of these applications requires different strategic thinking about the appropriate flexible substrate to use, but there is also an important commonality which NanoMarkets believes will create a vibrant market for flexible substrates of all kinds.

The Big Problem With Selling Substrates into the Flexible Display Market:  Flexible Displays Don’t Exist!

Flexible displays have been proposed for about a decade now and have been on show at display conferences and exhibitions for about as long.  They are frequently cited by literature in the printed and organic electronics disciplines as an important trend for the future.  In addition, within the community of firms making materials suitable for flexible substrates, there is a view that there is considerable potential for making sales to a vibrant flexible display market of the future.

For the time being this potential is just that - potential and little more:

• We think that substrate firms should be careful not to talk themselves into believing that there is more here than meets the eye.  Certainly, they should not expect much short term revenue from the flexible display sector.  As yet there have been no flexible displays that are commercially available and promises made by a few firms to bring such displays to market have been broken. 

• That said, flexible displays do seem to have the potential for real world applications -- if anyone could build them, that is -- and the recent announcement by Samsung that it plans to introduce these displays to the market has lent them considerable credibility.

The main application for flexible displays would be to enable portable displays of reasonable size that can be plugged into a cell phone to serve better as a video device or IT tool.  The first real rollable displays now look like they will as likely be OLED displays, since OLEDs can provide superb color, while the most common e-paper technologies are color-challenged:

• Conformability only would seem to be good enough for flexible substrates used in signage applications.

• From the substrate perspective, rollability will probably suffice for now in the display sector, but the idea of a display that can be crumpled up and put in one’s pocket, implies three-dimensional flexibility - a technology that doesn’t exist yet.  

• Three-dimensional flexibility would seem to fit well with the e-paper concept, since real paper is flexible in this sense.  For a time, “e-paper” and “flexible displays” seem to be synonyms for each other.  

Substrates for flexible displays may be relatively undemanding in terms of durability, at least at first when they are used with cell phones; cell phones generally last between a year and two years.  However, electrical and optical requirements for substrates used in displays may be more stringent.  For example, a substrate that stretches a bit might be acceptable for a PV panel, but with a display it would tend to distort the picture.  Very tight electrical specifications are required for much the same reason.

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