GERMAN GROUP TRIES TO GRAB
FLAT SCREENS’ NEXT GENERATION

By Kyle James
Small Times Correspondent

HANNOVER, Germany, April 25, 2002 — Germany has long considered itself a loser in the flat panel display industry. And for good reason, since about 97 percent of all flat panel displays are produced in Asia.

Now the country is ready to steal some of that business away from the Far East and it sees the current development of new flat screen technology as the ideal time to strike.

To get ready for battle, 13 companies that are part of the German Flat Panel Display Forum

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This image from Siemens shows one
possible use for flat panel displays: A
cell phone with a roll-up display that
allows full Internet access.
(DFF), an industry consortium, formed a new company this month called the German OLED Reference Line, or DORA for short. DORA’s goal is simple: Elaborate a strategy and a product to bring the production of competitive flat panel displays to Germany. It hopes to do this by jumping in while the technology for flat displays is changing.

OLED is the magic acronym, standing for Organic Light-Emitting Diodes. It is a technology based on light-emitting plastics that proponents say is head and shoulders above LCD display technology, which is used in about 90 percent of today’s flat panel displays.

“Imagine having a 13-inch TV screen — one that is as thick as a credit card,” said Eric Maiser, one of the directors of the display panel consortium that formed DORA, “or the day when you can just inkjet print your display.” OLED displays are superior to LCD displays in that they use less energy, are brighter, and can be viewed from any angle.

To create an OLED display, a plastic substrate is covered with up to four layers of light-emitting plastics. Four layers might sound like a lot, but together they are only approximately 150 nanometers thick.

“It needs of bit more development, but production can be dirt cheap,” Maiser said.

Part of DORA’s mission is to kick-start that last step of development — for example, finding a way to encapsulate the OLEDs, which are very sensitive to water vapor and oxygen.

DORA has come together now because research by the German Flat Panel Display Forum showed that if the country wanted to be at the forefront of the new display technology, it had to act now. It missed out on the current market when Japan beat the world in discovering the success potential of display technology in the 1980s and invested early to expand production capacity. The Japanese have already launched flat panel displays that uses a hybrid OLED technology, but not one with all the benefits and long life of the proposed German version, according to Maiser.

DORA plans to spend the next year figuring out the last technical obstacles and hopes to launch its pilot line in mid 2003, with mass production by 2005. “We want to introduce this new production technology to really be able to make money out of this,” he said.

But before they make any money, they are going to have to find quite a bit of it. DORA itself has been financed to the tune of approximately $800,000 by the 13 companies taking part, along with help from the Federal State of Saxony and the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. But it is estimated the company will need an investment of $50 million in the first year to come up with the pilot line, and $500 million to eventually build an OLED volume manufacturing plant. A good part of this first year will be spent looking for those investors.

Consortia like the German Flat Panel Display Forum are not unusual in Germany, where companies often come together in loose associations to share information and pursue research, up to a point. When they feel their proprietary information might be at risk, they usually break away. The German display panel consortium is made up of 70 members, including Siemens, BMW, Samsung, IBM and several Fraunhofer Institutes.

These kinds of consortia have distinct advantages, according to Silke Erlemann of Covion Organic Semiconductors, which is one of the DORA’s founding companies. “When new technology is at an early stage, it helps to have partners,” she said. “It lowers your investment and it lowers your risk.”

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