The following column was provided by Kim Allen, director of technology and strategic research for the iSuppli/Stanford Resources market research firm.
Integrated circuit technology put a brain in plastic cards, creating "smart cards" for uses such as credit, identification and phone payment cards. Now the possibility that flexible display technology could put a 'face' on smart cards, with the prospect of placing a screen on a smart card, is nearing commercial viability.
A smart card is a card equipped with an IC for memory or functional capability. Long popular in Europe and other parts of the world, smart cards are becoming more common in the United States in applications such as national ID cards and security badges, and are likely to see wider use in the coming years.
The idea of a display-equipped smart card is to include a small screen on an identification, phone, security, or credit card that can show some of the information contained in the onboard IC and provide instructions as to how to use it
A smart-card display must be stable, rugged and slightly flexible. The image on the screen can be changed by interfacing the card with a reader; a powered device that can read and write data to the card.
For this application, the capability to display monochrome characters is sufficient, and the required screen size is much less than one inch in diagonal. These are not terribly rigorous technical requirements, making smart cards an accessible market for up-and-coming flexible display technologies.
However, price is a tremendous challenge. The market will tolerate a cost of only pennies per display for any mass-quantity orders, although much higher prices can be acceptable in the near term. When these cards can be produced easily and inexpensively, it is possible to envision a market for enormous numbers of displays.
However, even with such high unit sales, total area demand will be small. Thus, a good strategy for flexible display makers addressing this market would be to combine their smart-card screen production with manufacturing of other products on a single high-volume line, iSuppli/Stanford Resources believes.
Flexible displays for smart cards are nearing the point of commercial viability. It is possible that trial runs of products could commence within the next six to eight quarters. Large volumes are not likely to occur until the second-generation of display-enabled smart cards arrive, which could happen in about four to five years, iSuppli/Stanford Resources predicts.
LCD and electrophoretic are the most likely flexible display types for smart cards. However, electrochromic also is an option in some select cases. LCDs are forecast to retain the majority of the market value throughout this decade.
The market for display-equipped smart cards is expected to rise to more than 22 million units in 2010. While this represents a large-volume opportunity, it is far smaller than the overall smart-card market because, of course, not all smart cards have a need for a display.
Kimberly Allen can be contacted at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org