Just as personal and notebook computers were the focal point of display development in the past two decades, so the flat-panel and microdisplay television market has become the driver for design and manufacturing changes during the current decade.
Makers of liquid-crystal displays have invested billions in next-generation fabs and processes, with suppliers of plasma and microdisplay rear-projection (RP) screens scrambling to keep up with their LCD counterparts. Purveyors of display materials and suppliers of components have engineered technology and process improvements to make these advances possible.
The transition to newer TV display technologies is likely to be gradual, particularly since CRT-based sets still hold a price advantage in a cost-sensitive consumer market. But as makers of LCD, plasma and projection displays cut prices on their products, consumers who are willing to pay more for better performance and viewing characteristics are likely to accelerate the conversion.
Market research firm iSuppli Corp. expects global TV sales to hit 171.6 million units this year and rise at a compound annual growth rate of 5.3 percent, to reach 215.5 million units by 2009. Plasma TV sets will rise the fastest, from 2.1 million units in 2004 to 18.2 million units by 2009.
CRT-based TVs, while still expected to far outpace the other technologies in sales, will see shipments decline at a rate of 2 percent through 2009, said iSuppli.
No sector of the flat-panel TV industry has received as much attention as LCDs, where market leader LG.Philips LCD Co. Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., both of South Korea, face stiff competition from Japan-based Sharp Corp. and several Taiwanese suppliers.
Shipments of LCD TVs reached 8.8 million units in 2004, 123 percent higher than a year ago, according to research firm DisplaySearch Inc. (Austin, Texas).
Although LCD vendors have made recent headlines about leapfrogging one another to build plants able to handle larger substrates, the trend has actually been going on for years, according to Bruce Berkoff, executive vice president for LG.Philips LCD.
"Since the early 1990s, there has been a new-generation factory every few years," Berkoff said. "You already have some breakthrough technology."
The payoff for spending billions on new fabs is being able to produce larger LCD panels more rapidly and economically, Berkoff said. "The cost per panel goes down if you can produce more in a day. You need to reach economies of scale."
According to Berkoff, LG.Philips is readying a seventh-generation fab for next year that will be able to handle eight 42- or six 47-inch sheets from a single panel, paving the way to build LCD TVs with screens of more than 40 inches.
Samsung has a joint LCD venture called S-LCD Corp. that produces the panels on a seventh-generation line in Tangjeong, South Korea. The line can handle substrates up to 1,870 x 2,200 mm in size.
Glass makers such as Corning Inc. have had to scramble to keep up with LCD suppliers' voracious appetite for larger panels. "No one expected TV sizes to get as large as they are," said Peter Bocko, division vice president and director of commercial technologies for the Corning Display group. Bocko sees glass substrate sizes heading toward 3 meters square by the end of the decade.
"This is a testosterone-driven business," he said. "Months ago, the race to larger glass sizes appeared to be over, but now Generation 7 is starting, and Sharp is talking about Gen 8."
Capital equipment issues could be a hurdle in moving to larger glass panels. "The basic capital costs of processing equipment don't scale very well with size," Bocko said. "The advantage of doing a larger number of panels will be offset by the capital costs of equipment."
Glass makers are not the only ones challenged by the TV market. LCD backlight makers face the task of trying to lower power consumption while improving viewing characteristics, given the performance limitations of traditional cold-cathode fluorescent lighting.
Makers of LEDs are trying to fill the performance gap. "This is a disruptive technology," said Mark Pugh, vice president of business development for Lumileds Inc. (San Jose, Calif.). "We have to figure how to make it easy to implement."
Lumileds is working to make the variations in wavelength more consistent and controllable, Pugh said. "We came up with optical reference designs, doing more mixing if one LED is brighter than another and getting an averaging effect. We developed RGB sensors and algorithms that are built in to drivers to adjust color rendition."
The main obstacle in adopting LEDs to flat-panel TVs will be cost. "We're between three and five times the cost of a CCFL backlight system," Pugh said. He believes display makers will ramp up the use of LED backlights once that premium is reduced to 30 to 50 percent.
Additional improvements in LED brightness will also help reduce cost, Pugh said, because "you'll be able to take LEDs out. Now we need a lot of LEDs to achieve color uniformity."
Another factor enabling LED backlighting of TV displays will be more-efficient driver ICs, said Ahmed Masood, director of marketing for Supertex Inc. (Sunnyvale, Calif.).
"We're maintaining a constant-current source so that the white point of the light doesn't shift" over time as colors deteriorate, Masood said.
Display makers are also tweaking their technologies to yield better viewing characteristics.
For instance, Samsung's S-PVA display technology delivers a 180 degrees viewing angle and reportedly exhibits no off-axis color shift or gray-scale inversion, according to Joe Virginia, vice president of marketing for Samsung's LCD Business.
Further integration of video functions should also aid LCD performance and costs, said Jos Klippert, marketing director of LCD TV solutions for Philips Semiconductors (San Jose).
"We are integrating algorithms to enable panel makers to simplify their design," he said. "We're looking to lower bill-of-material costs."
Also, Klippert added, "We're able to optimize LCD video performance by integrating all the video IP [intellectual property]. Noise on antenna signals is one of the biggest issues. We use adaptive total-noise reduction by analyzing picture noise and dynamically setting noise reduction algorithms."
One obstacle that could hold back the rise of LCD TV is a shortage of parts such as glass and filters. "There was overinvestment in glass color filters in the third quarter of 2004," said Sweta Dash, an analyst for iSuppli. As a result, suppliers were forced to reduce prices. "We now expect an 8 to 10 percent undersupply by year's end," Dash said.
Dash added that the situation could worsen if LCD panel makers decide to build their own color filters to control supply and quality. The rise of "a lot of in-house development may reduce the incentive for other color-filter companies to build up production," she said.
Large LCD suppliers have tightened their supply chains to better ensure component availability and lessen the likelihood of supply disruptions. For instance, Virginia of Samsung said that the South Korean company relies heavily on vertically integrated supply chain management, sourcing many of its components either internally or from suppliers located within a tight radius of its LCD fabs.
Likewise, glass substrates for LCD panels above 10 inches could face shortages, according to iSuppli. The market research firm said that glass suppliers responded to an oversupply of glass late last year by cutting production. Materials suppliers typically require one quarter to respond to shifts in LCD equipment levels, according to iSuppli.
Although several LCD suppliers have built prototype panels well exceeding 40 inches, industry observers believe high manufacturing costs will make LCD TV panels prohibitively expensive at those sizes. In this sector, both plasma and projection TV display makers are fighting tooth-and-nail to ward off not only LCD makers, but also each other.
"We're working to keep these technologies up to date," said Jeff Cove, vice president of technology and alliances for Panasonic Corp. of North America (Secaucus, N.J.), which sells plasma displays from Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. of Japan.
DisplaySearch noted that plasma display shipments rose 155 percent year over year, to 2.8 million units, in 2004.
One concern about plasma displays has been the lifetime of the phosphors. But according to Jim Noecker, senior digital engineer for Panasonic Plasma Display Laboratory of America Inc., that metric has been improved.
"We're seeing 60,000 hours to half-brightness, which translates to roughly six to seven hours per day for 25 years of life," said Noecker. "You're going to move it [the display] into another room before you retire it. We don't think lifetime is an issue anymore."
Noecker added that Panasonic is making strides to reduce power consumption in plasma displays-an issue that becomes more crucial as the displays scale up in size.
"We can envision improving efficiency two- to fourfold, slashing power usage through a combination of panel design, gas mixture and phosphor improvements," Noecker said.
As with plasma displays, makers of projection displays say they're keeping pace with LCD and plasma schemes by providing a cost-effective alternative to the flat-panel technologies at larger screen sizes.
According to DisplaySearch, the microdisplay rear-projection TV market-consisting of LCD, digital light processing (DLP) and liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCOS) models-jumped 39 percent quarter to quarter and 293 percent year over year to 626,000 units, capturing a 34 percent share of the RPTV market in the fourth quarter of 2004. Revenue rose 28 percent, to $1.75 billion, or 52 percent of total RPTV revenue, said the firm.
Proponents of microdisplay rear-projection TVs contend their technologies can be more easily adapted to large-format screens than LCD and plasma technologies, which rely on semiconductor-manufacturing techniques.
"If you look at flat-panel display technology, there are similarities to semiconductors, and a lot of the same rules of semiconductor manufacturing apply," said Pete van Kessel, general manager of DLP Products Japan at Texas Instruments Inc., which supplies its digital light-processing technology for microdisplay-based systems. "As the diagonal of the display goes up, the likelihood of defects also goes up."
Van Kessel said TI is working to lower parts count through chip integration and is developing algorithms to improve color properties obtainable from DLP technology. "We've also changed the DMD [digital mirror device] structure to reduce process steps and make it more manufacturable," he added.
Van Kessel also pointed out that while plasma displays-which compete most directly with projection displays in the over-40-inch category-do not lend themselves to thinner screens than plasma, that disadvantage is not as critical as some might think.
"The number of people who hang them [plasma displays] on a wall is relatively small," he said.
Another microdisplay technology, liquid crystal on silicon, continues to show great promise but has had some starts and stops in the TV market.
One company trying to make a splash with microdisplay-based TVs is Brillian Corp. (Tempe, Ariz.), which was slated to begin producing a 65-inch LCOS-based high-definition TV last year. The company ran into production delays, however, and a distribution agreement with Sears Roebuck & Co. was canceled.
Brillian now appears to be getting back on track, having recently announced a strategic multiyear partnership with Suntron Corp. to source and build LCOS microdisplay-based HDTVs and proprietary light engines.
See related image