OLED Technology To Take Another 3-5 Years Before Maturation
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Whenever innovative technologies emerge, speculators often will sail with the wind and urge for the technology’s advancement. They will also start listing the old technology’s flaws. In reality, there is nothing definite in new and old technology. By using innovative technologies for reference, old technologies can further advance, while immature new technologies might meet an early demise.

OLED lighting has found itself in this awkward position. Large international manufacturers including Panasonic, Konica Minolta, Philips, DuPong and LG Chem have all entered OLED panel production and created a new development trend. In August 2013, China’s first OLED lighting production line in Nanjing also entered mass production. However, events took a rapid turn in March 2014, when Panasonic dissolved PIOL, an OLED company set up through a joint venture with large OLED material manufacturer Idemitsu. The reasons Panasonic cited behind the subsidiary dissolution were LED lighting’s growing popularity, and the company’s inability to expand OLED lighting business. In the short term, OLED lighting has been said to be nothing more than a gimmick, and has generated much speculation.

OLED’s advantages

As a type of lighting OLED has certain advantages over LED:

OLEDs consist of smaller chemical particles that can be manufactured using low cost glass substrates. The light source is made using membranes made from large area physical vapor deposition, and is a natural surface light source.
OLED manufacturing technology unlike LED does not require super high vapor and high temperature environment, and is much more cost competitive.
OLED has even light distribution, and emits gentle light which is close to Lambert’s emission law distribution. Therefore, OLEDs is a finished luminaire that does not require additional lampshades.
One of organic material’s emission feature on the light spectrum is wide Full Width at Half Maximum (FWHM). Therefore, white OLED do not have a very big dent on the spectrum, which gives the light source excellent CRI. This makes OLED very suitable for general indoor lighting, since it does not affect human vision.
White OLED is basically made by mixing organic materials that emit red, green (yellow) and blue together. By adjusting the proportion of colors emitted by the light, it can emit any type of color light and used in different application fields.
OLED has a very large light-emitting area, which allows immediate heat dissipation during operation. The light source does not require additional heat dissipation devices, which makes OLEDs very thin and capable of saving space and costs.
OLED can be designed into different styles because the material is flexible, which greatly expands its application in decorative lighting.
OLED lighting does not create any pollutants during manufacturing or usage, so it lowers environmental impact.
Huge LED replacement tide is a main hurdle for OLED adoption

With growing environmental awareness, LED technology which was developed much earlier than OLED has become the new generation lighting technology. After several years of industry restructure, LED technology has become a major market focus. The U.S. market has phased out 40W and 60W incandescent bulb sales. Other Asian countries also followed suit in launching policies of using CFL to replace incandescent bulbs including Korea, Thailand, and Philippines. Countries around the globe have banned usage of incandescent bulbs creating a new LED luminaire replacement wave that is gradually taking over the lighting market.

LED bulbs and tubes have become the most popular light sources on the market, according to understanding. Since rapid falls in LED lighting prices stimulated market demands, manufacturers have started to launch different LED lighting products with prices close to conventional lighting products. This year, LED bulb prices plunged so much that price differences among different brands has become much smaller. This has made LED the ideal light source that is quickly spreading across the market.

While OLED white light might be closer to natural light than LED, a single unit is still two to three times the price of LED lights even with the use of more cost effective wet coating process. It will take till 2018 or even 2020 before OLEDs can be as price competitive as LED, projected Karsten Diekmann, Head of OLED Product Development at Osram. Price was one of the major obstacles to LEDs popularization. Since prices are the basis to market acceptance, OLED’s high costs will also become a hurdle to the technology’s promotion.

OLED still needs a lot of catching up to do before it can compete with LED

OLED panels will reach luminous efficacy of 100 lm/W and a lifetime of 30,000 hours, according to a latest report by Korean market research company UBI. The report noted, OLED lighting’s performance increase will propel lighting market growth, which is expected to reach US $4.7 billion by 2020.

However, OLED technology still lags behind many estimations including by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE previously forecasted OLED panel prices will drop to US $25/ klm by 2015. This target currently appears out of reach, since manufacturing costs are still a major issue.

There are many important factors in OLED lighting technology that require further research including brightness, color, energy efficiency and lifetime. Large investments need to be injected into R&D to solve these issues, but many debt-ridden OLED lighting manufacturers have shutdown. ELTechno, a Japanese OLED company founded by a former Sanyo Electronic technician in 2010 declared bankruptcy because of debts. The company manufactures EL lighting panels and offers other manufacturing services. In 2011, the company was even a step ahead of large manufacturers with the establishment of an OLED mass production factory, but rising R&D and other costs generated a debt of JYP 1.39 billion (US $10 million). The company eventually accepted Tokyo Court’s bankruptcy ruling in February 2014.

Currently, LED lighting luminous efficacy is 110 lm/W, while commercial OLED products is 60 lm/W at most. LED manufacturing costs are about US $5/klm, but OLED is about US $350/klm. This reflects a gap in the two lighting technology developments. Therefore, OLED technology must take advantage of glare-free, and larger and flatter luminaire production capacity to acquire a spot in the lighting market.

Currently, OLED manufacturers have used high drive power to increase efficiency, but component lifespans have been shortened as a result. The current solution is to connect layers of OLED structures to improve luminous efficiency. If two different structured OLEDs are laminated together during deposition, it can create a much stronger light, nearly two times as bright under the same power drive.

It would be a great technological accomplishment if OLEDs reached the same levels as LEDs. In general, commercial LED products have 20 to 25 year lifetime, while OLED only five to ten years. This is mainly because certain OLED materials degrade faster than other materials, which can cause discoloration that is unacceptable in certain industrial or automotive lighting applications.

Since every OLED pilot production line construction can take up to several months, equipment manufacturers need to shoulder some of the costs. While OLED manufacturers claim use of ultra-thin layers to counter high costs from complex atom materials, most analysts believe this is only half the truth. Material costs, manufacturing and panel light emission material are all interlinked. Most manufacturing material used are those deposited on reactor walls or have not deposited at all, which is a complete waste of materials.

Details from commercial OLED panels reveal three major issues. First, OLED has very low yield rates. Manufacturers do not have adequate control, technology or experience in high yield manufacturing. Secondly, OLED production lines are costly. For instance, Osram has invested £20 million (US $34.21 million) in its OLED pilot production line in Regensburg, Germany. Thirdly, exorbitant material and equipment costs. It has been difficult to lower OLED production line costs because the innovative technology lacks standard equipment.

Will OLED gain market approval in the short-run?

OLED is more of a publicity stunt than a pragmatic application, and its news value is greater than application value, said Analyses International Analyst Zhuo Saijun. Greater value lies in displaying technological capabilities to promote company brand. Observations based on OLED manufacturing capacity and pricing point towards low possibility of increasing the product’s popularity, he continued. Although, OLED technology revolution will become a definite trend, full-blown replacement requires time and the replacement cycle will be fairly long. Additionally, another five years will be needed before OLED technology fully matures.

There is little evidence of OLED replacing LED functions, unless OLED costs can be lowered to 1.2 times of LEDs in same sized products, said multimedia group Changhong Group General Manager Ye Honglin. The trend of OLED replacing LED will not be happening in the next two to three years.

LED lighting is now the main retrofit lighting on the market, but limited by luminous efficacy has failed to stimulate new market demands, said Panasonic Research Director Takuya Komoda. However, OLED is capable of stimulating new demands. Komoda projected together LED and OLED will completely replace conventional lighting by 2020.

Yole Development has been the most optimistic in its forecast, noting in the next two years OLED costs can be lowered to a third of current prices. New generation manufacturing equipment introduced by manufacturers will use larger mother glass substrates in deposition reactors to raise production capacity.

Diekmann from Osram, though, noted OLED will not be as price competitive as LEDs till 2018 or even 2020 earliest.

The market recognizes OLED lighting’s development potential, and that it is a competing technology to LED lighting. Yet, based on OLED’s current energy efficiency and cost differences, the possibility of it being eliminated from the market in the near future still looms. The two types of SSL technology, though, can still co-exist as OLED lighting technology and luminaire design develops, and the two technologies target different application markets. What OLED needs is good development environment rather than excessive enthusiasm.

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