Like King Arthur's search for the Holy Grail, the U.S. quest to manufacture flat panel displays is a myth. The trail is littered with American FPD corpses -- and the vision of the future is blurred, if not illusory.
The latest demise is field emission displays (FED) -- once the hoped-for jump-start to finally get America into the FPD world.
Candescent Technology late last year gave up the dream of becoming a volume FED maker. That followed the demise of Micron Displays which sold out to Pixtech Inc., which in turn was forced to close the Boise, Ida., plant it acquired, and scale back itself. Pixtech still supplies small FED panels overseas, made in the AU Optronics foundry in Taiwan, now used in Audi auto dashboards. Pixtech also sells to the niche industrial and medical display market, the only arena U.S. panel makers have ever been able to crack.
The U.S. Display Consortium, partially funded by Uncle Sam, poured millions of dollars into FED developments. That has all gone down the tubes when the government this fiscal year yanked its USDC contribution, sending the consortium off on a new tack to fund displays for wearable computers and plastic panel development.
At one time there were more than a half dozen U.S. firms developing FED displays, including some of the biggest names in the business -- Motorola, IBM (which got out very early), Raytheon. Although a promising technology, FED investments were too little, too late -- and crashing prices in the mainstream LCD market obliterated any hope of embryonic U.S. field emission panel firms to get a foothold.
American hopes for any FPD presence now rest on a bevy of microdisplay manufacturers, with some of them closing up shop as well. After the U.S. struck out in LCD panels and FEDs, there was hope that the third time around in microdisplays might be the charm. At this point, that prospect isn't looking so good either.
The list of FPD obituaries shouldn't obscure one shining success -- Texas Instrument's high volume sales of micromirror displays, a type of flat panel that has found its way into many applications.
What the American FPD saga should tell us is the flawed policy of trying to create an industry with government support (Cypress Semiconductor's T. J. Rodgers was proven right). It says if you are trying to make a new technology beachhead in some one else's entrenched market territory, you don't do it with anemic toe-in-the-water investments.
But the U.S. FPD failure also belies the hysteria of a few decades ago that this country risked losing its technological preeminence by becoming solely dependent on foreign electronic powers. (I confess to contributing to that paranoia.) As long as this country remains predominant in microprocessors, communications and networking chips, software, and a growing power in memory, then the auxiliary displays for these devices become another commodity part for the rest of the world to squabble over.
At least that's our Camelot for the time being.....