NanoMarkets Blog
What the OLED Explosion Means for Transparent Conductor Makers
Published: October 29, 2013 Category: Advanced Materials OLEDs

OLEDs are another opportunity that NanoMarkets sees that TC firms can pursue.  ITO is used almost exclusively in OLEDs at the present time, but there is a consensus that alternative TCs might do a better job, because ITO is not well suited to use with active OLED materials or with large panels such as OLED TVs and lighting.  In addition, OLEDs seem to represent an opportunity for alternative TCs, because, unlike LCDs, this sector has yet to adopt a mature manufacturing infrastructure.  By contrast, as we note throughout this report, LCD manufacturing has established manufacturing processes and materials; it won’t let go of ITO easily.

Samsung rules:  However, OLEDs are a riskier proposition from the TC maker's perspective than are touch panels. With touch panels, the risk that the addressable market will not take off is effectively zero.  The uncertainties associated with OLEDs are much greater.  For a start, a huge proportion of the activity in the OLED space is now focused on the activities of one company,  Samsung.  Samsung not only makes most of the OLED displays currently commercially deployed but is also the main customer for OLEDs worldwide through its cell-phone operations.

That puts a lot of market power in Samsung’s collective hands. Specifically, a decision by Samsung can change everything. Samsung is known to be experimenting with a number of different TCs.  So, should this company decide that one of these is better for OLED panels than ITO, a vast new marketplace could open up for one ITO alternative or another. 

Conversely, if Samsung decides, that, after all, ITO is indeed the way to go in the OLED space, that would foreclose the market alternative TCs in a significant manner.  For that matter, if Samsung decides that OLEDs were a strategic mistake altogether, this would essentially close off an entire market segment for the alternative TC companies.  We don’t think this is very likely to happen though.

Samsung may not always be as powerful in the market as it is now.  Samsung’s Korean rival, LG, also makes active matrix (AM) OLED displays and other firms are getting into the act, including Innolux (Taiwan), Japan Display (Japan), and AU Optronics (Taiwan).  It should also be noted that the customers in the OLED display space are large and some of them seem likely to have something to say about what materials are used.  In particular, everyone seems to be waiting for Apple to adopt OLEDs, and it would be no surprise to see Apple have preferences with regard to the TCs used in its products; it is that sort of company.

OLED TVs and lighting:  A separate set of issues for TC makers arise in the context of large panels.  To get consistent lighting in such panels a metal mesh sometimes needs to included, with or without ITO.  And obviously if large OLED panels start to take off in the marketplace, there will be more sales of TCs of various kinds; the area of a mobile display is orders of magnitudes smaller than a TV or lighting panel.

With regard to OLED TV markets, until now OLED TVs have been much promised and much delayed. LG has delayed its launch several times, and today its OLED TVs are still only available in select markets at very high-end prices that keep them out of the mainstream.  Meanwhile, Samsung has only just launched its OLED TV products.  Sony and Panasonic plan to have OLED TVs in the market by 2014

Even slower to reach the market are OLED lighting panels.  Almost no one has ever seriously proposed that these would be available before 2014; the exception being GE, which originally said that it would have such panels by 2010 or so.  NanoMarkets remains cautiously optimistic about the technology's eventual success, but we won't see many OLED lighting panels until at least 2016 and possibly later.  Luxury luminaires of various kinds have been available for quite a while, but together do not account for any significant volume of materials of any kind.

While these fascinating technologies may well ultimately provide significant opportunities for the manufacturers, they come with the risk that they may never happen.  OLED TVs have a negligible share of the market and are immensely expensive.  LCD technologies with high refresh rates or quantum dot enhanced back lighting units (BLUs) can provide very high quality visual experiences at much lower costs.  Similarly, if OLED lighting ever becomes a mass market, it will be because it has reached a certain level of energy efficiency and OLED lighting is not there yet.

The bottom line here is that there are fairly good prospects for the emergence of large OLED panel products that could potentially consume a considerable amount of transparent conductors.  As far as OLED lighting is concerned this would be an entirely new market for TCs of any kind; current lighting technologies use some TCs, but not much.  With regard to OLED TVs, their success would mean a sizeable new market for alternative TCs, since they could open up the TV market to a big penetration of alternative TCs.  At the moment, most of the TV market is LCD and is exclusively ITO.  However, all of these suggestions are fraught with uncertainties.
But OLEDs could be a threat to the transparent conductor market, too:  But even when such positive analysis is considered, there is one threat to the TC market that is intimately associated with the rise of OLEDs.

This threat (it is barely that at the present time) is that because OLED panels use a transparent conductor on one side only, a deep penetration of the display industry by OLEDs might well lower the aggregate volume demand for TCs; since LCDs use two layers of ITO.  This would probably not worry the makers of alternative TCs, since they would be losing a market they never had to begin with. However, for ITO makers this might eventually put a dent in their sales.  As far as we can tell, no ITO glass makers seem to be worrying much about this issue.

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