Flat Panels: Can The U.S. Get Back Into The Picture?

For a glimpse of the future, look no further than the flat-panel screen on the nearest laptop computer. The ultrathin displays already have revolutionized computing. Soon, they may turn up on everything from airplane and auto instrument panels to telephones and high-definition TVs. The trouble is, nearly all of them are made in Japan. And if that continues, flat-panel displays will be yet another depressing tale of a vital U.S.-invented technology that was fumbled away.

This time, though, U.S. companies aren't giving up without a fight. Over the past three years, companies from giant Texas Instruments Inc. to tiny OIS Optical Imaging Systems Inc. have been developing innovative flat-panel systems and components in their labs. This year, a few brave businesses such as Motorola Inc. have committed to large-scale display manufacturing in the U.S. And now, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is joining with industry to form a consortium designed to take a big bite out of Japan's lead. "This is the next step in a long climb back to prominence for the U.S. in flat-panel displays," explains Lance Glasser, director of the Electronic Systems Technology office at DARPA.

DAZZLING DISPLAY. If the U.S. claws its way back, it will signal the triumph of smarts over bucks. By some estimates, Japanese companies have invested up to $3 billion in factories to make advanced displays. Most of these use so-called active-matrix liquid-crystal technology, where every dot (or pixel) on the screen is controlled by its own transistor. The color displays are dazzling, but fabricating the millions of transistors is fiendishly difficult. As a result, the panels are limited to less than 20 inches across and are prohibitively expensive--about $1,500 for a 10-inch laptop screen.

What's more, the Japanese haven't been able to bring the cost down as fast as they expected, says display analyst David E. Mentley of Stanford Resources Inc. "They've been mugged by reality," he says. They also were hurt by a 62.7% tariff imposed last year after a ruling found they were dumping screens in the U.S. below cost. The coalition of U.S. companies that brought the case, however, is in danger of breaking up. U.S. computer makers, who buy the screen, have pressured one group, and one member, OIS, has dropped its complaint.

Japan's woes have helped spur new approaches. While some U.S. efforts use active-matrix technology, Motorola and In Focus Systems Inc. in Tualatin, Ore., plan to build a simpler passive-matrix screen that promises high quality at lower cost. Texas Instruments is developing an exotic display that relies on tiny moveable mirrors. And Boise (Idaho) chipmaker Micron Technology Inc. is trying to make screens in which each pixel is lit by its own miniature electron beams. "American companies have world-class technology," says Glasser.

DARPA's consortium will help move that technology from lab to factory. The idea is for companies to identify crucial gaps in their ability to make flat panels, then coordinate R&D to fill those gaps. DARPA plans to throw in at least $12 million a year, with companies shouldering a larger share as the industry matures. So far, American Telephone & Telegraph, Xerox, the David Sarnoff Research Center, OIS, and Standish Industries, a Wisconsin liquid-crystal-display maker, plan to band together.

The climate seems right for the U.S. effort. Electronics manufacturers "are beginning to feel that the display is what sells the product," says Griffith L. Resor III, president of MRS Technology Inc. in Chelmsford, Mass., which builds display-making tools. "They don't want to be totally dependent on Japanese sources." DARPA's Glasser is convinced that they won't be. Within five years, he predicts, one or two U.S. companies will be in full-scale production of flat-panel displays, with three to five more supplying niche markets. "It's very exciting," adds Robert M. White, Commerce Under Secretary for technology. "I think we stand a good chance of getting back into the market."

It's still only a chance, though. "Things are just getting started--it's premature to say there's a resurgence in the U.S. display industry," cautions Steven W. Depp, manager of the entry system technologies laboratory at IBM, which is already making active-matrix displays in Japan in a joint venture with Toshiba. But at least now, the U.S. is fighting back.