Bright future for OLEDs, report predicts

Research firm expects market for OLEDs used in displays and lighting to reach $15.5 billion by 2014.
Written by Candace Lombardi, Contributor
Organic light-emitting diodes, which have only recently found their way from the lab to the Consumer Electronics Show floor, are poised to become a multibillion-dollar market.

The OLED market is predicted to hit $10.9 billion by 2012 and grow to $15.5 billion two years later, according to a report released Thursday from research firm NanoMarkets. The market is expected to reach $1.4 billion this year.

OLEDs can be fashioned into thin sheets of polymer that emit bright light when an electrical current is applied. They are already used on the outer screen of many clam-shell cell phones, a few MP3 players, an electric razor and a Kodak camera.

Kodak was one of the first to develop a specific kind of OLED technology. Now companies like Sony are touting OLEDs as the next big thing in flat-screen televisions and General Electric is using them to develop more energy-efficient lighting fixtures and windows. Their thinness and promise of low power consumption also make OLEDs ideal for signs, as well as computer and laptop monitors.

"The attraction for OLEDs in all of these areas--cell phones, signs or computer and television displays--is that, first of all, OLEDs are very bright and attractive to look at," said Lawrence Gasman, a senior analyst at NanoMarkets.

OLED displays require no backlighting, as LCDs (liquid crystal displays) do. In fact, OLEDs, which promise to be more energy-efficient, could be used to replace the power-eating fluorescent backlighting currently used for LCDs, according to Gasman.

Also, OLEDs may prove cheaper to manufacture. Currently, OLED displays are not as complicated to produce as LCD displays, though the processes are similar, said Gasman. Developing technology, however, will enable OLED displays to be printed on conventional or ink-jet printers. The new roll-to-roll process, similar in look to newspaper printing, will be much cheaper than the LCD manufacturing process, said Gasman.

Although Sony has said that 2008 could see some OLED televisions available to consumers, don't expect to see OLED televisions become the norm overnight. Companies have invested heavily in LCD manufacturing plants, according to Gasman, and are unlikely to throw them out just to switch to OLEDs.

"It takes a long time for any new technology, however good, to take over in televisions. To state the obvious, people don't buy a new one after 18 months as they do with cell phones. The product life for televisions is longer," said Gasman.

Do expect to see OLEDs as the main screens on mobile phones. OLEDs have fast switching rates, which means they are good for video. That is a big motivator for main displays on cell phones, especially with mobile video becoming more popular.

"In theory, they also have very low power consumption overall. They don't drain the batteries as fast as LCDs do, and that is tied to the switching issue. You don't need as much power to change pictures and things," said Gasman.

"And power is probably the main constraint--apart from size issues--on what you can do on mobile phone or handheld gaming devices," he said.

For these reasons, it's expected that revenue for OLED displays used in mobile phones and handhelds will be about $7.2 billion by 2014, according to NanoMarkets.

The report also noted the physical flexibility of OLEDs and the wide angle from which they can be seen as other attractive traits. Companies looking to offer detachable roll-up displays for cell phones and slimmer displays for commercial signs and notebook computers will make the switch to OLEDs. Large color displays, such as billboards, are not yet an option with current OLED technology. But medium-size OLED displays, like informational signs at kiosks, are ideal because they can be viewed from far angles, said the report.

OLEDs are also expected to have a significant impact on lighting, with the market for OLED-based lighting expected to exceed $1 billion by 2014.

According to companies exploring the use of OLEDs in light fixtures, a 25-centimeter square panel of OLEDs can generate about 25 to 31 lumens per watt, compared with the 10 to 15 lumens per watt given off by an incandescent light bulb.

But OLEDs are not yet weather-resistant, so don't expect to see them as airport runway lights anytime soon.

One place you might see them, however, is in the airplane cabin. Gasman said OLEDs could be built into planes to offer lighting, as well as into the wall panels of homes. The lighting would be less expensive to run in terms of power than incandescent lighting.

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