SAN JOSE, Calif. Two display companies will demonstrate large prototypes at the Display Works conference next week: PixTech International will show a 15-inch-diagonal field-emission display (FED); and Westaim Advanced Display Technologies will present a 17-inch thick-film electroluminescent (EL) unit it calls SSD for solid-state display.
Neither company, however, plans to bridge those technology demos into real products to challenge the active-matrix LCD until they find a partner, indicative of a new and increasingly common business model in flat-panel displays.
PixTech (Santa Clara, Calif.) has been shipping small volumes of 5.2-inch FEDs since 1996 from its pilot line in southern France, and this year, volumes will start flowing from a revamped LCD line at its Taiwanese manufacturing partner Unipac. "Serious production quantities" will arrive by summer, said Tom Holzel, PixTech's vice president of sales and marketing, noting that the dedicated line at Unipac has a capacity of 10,000 displays per month.
PixTech plans to scale up its design this year for FEDs in the 7- to 7.5-inch range for the same type of instrumentation applications served by the 5.2-inch devices. Moving beyond that size for monitor and TV applications requires a transition from a low-voltage to a high-voltage design, which the company will demo next week in San Jose, Calif.
The PixTech demo "has some defects but it's very good-looking," said Holzel, projecting that "it will be a lot cleaner " at the Society for Information Display conference in May. It's a full-color VGA display using a 6-kV anode voltage rather than the 400 V of the firm's small displays. "No one else is running that high" a voltage because of problems with arcing, he said.
Pointing to other FED wannabes who have fallen out of the game or suffered delays, Holzel attributed PixTech's success partly to the cooperative development alliance it formed with such companies as Motorola, Futaba and Raytheon, the latter a CRT veteran. "The technology sharing has really paid off," Holzel said.
The purpose of the big PixTech demo is "to attract a CRT company to do a joint venture," he said. "Big glass is beyond our means. We believe we can get 90 to 95 percent yield" on the high-voltage design. "Compared to a CRT, there's nothing very fancy or special about it," he said.
As for Westaim (Etobicoke, Ontario), it has yet to ship any displays after eight years of development. But the company moved into high gear last year after conquering the problem of luminance of the blue phosphor and acquiring a production facility from Litton Industries, which backed out of the active-matrix (AM) LCD business.
President and chief executive officer Michael Goldstein said the simplicity of Westaim's thick-film technology has allowed the company to scale display sizes rapidly from 2 to 17 inches. Westaim is now "in trial manufacturing to get yields up. We have made defect-free displays outside of a clean room," he said. "This is inherently high-yield, low-cost technology."
The primary focus for its displays will be at 25 inches and larger, said Goldstein, who said the technology can scale up to about 42 inches. But real products in various sizes for various market segments will only come "when we have joint-venture partners who want to go into business together," he said. "We're not going to just make something and go try to sell it."
The display technology to beat, of course, is the AM LCD, now at 20-inch-diagonal sizes and beyond, though at high cost. "But AM LCD technology does have a size limit," said Chuck McLaughlin of the McLaughlin Consulting Group (Menlo Park, Calif.). "Today, it's about 15 inches for reasonable prices. The size limit is directly related to the area-yield issues faced by any active-matrix device. Just how big can you build a DRAM structure, anyway?"
The answer, said McLaughlin, may be "passive-addressed devices there's no area-yield challenge and they require much lower investment." Candidates are plasma, plasma-addressed liquid crystal, FED and EL, he said. "To really be successful above a $1 billion total market size these panels must not only do what AM LCDs do, but must be bigger than AM LCDs and big enough to meet user needs at consumer price points."
McLaughlin believes the AM LCD will dominate the computer-monitor market for the foreseeable future. "That leaves TV and, more specifically, DTV and HDTV. Consumers would jump on a 28- to 40-inch DTV or HDTV solution selling in the $1,000 to $2,000 street-price range. All the developers have a story about how they are going to get there, but so far neither the plasma nor plasma-addressed LC developers have been able to demonstrate that."
In McLaughlin's view, "the EL story seems much more credible than the FED story, mainly based on the hope for a much lower investment requirement."
Ken Werner, editor of the SID's Information Display magazine, noted that partnering is becoming commonplace for companies with alternative display technologies, particularly makers of miniature "virtual" displays. For PixTech and Westaim, he said, partnerships "would appear to be a rational extension of the approach into the direct-view realm."
But technology demos are one thing and products another. "Potential customers would like to know that things are producible reliably and consistently in volume," he said. "But I've been hearing questions from materials-oriented people on whether you can make large EL displays that are pinhole-free for high yield and whether the display characteristics will be sufficiently consistent over a large area. These are questions. The answers obviously aren't in yet."