Your Next TV Might Roll Out of a Printer
Makers of electronics hoping to win over consumers with sharper, more vivid displays are turning to a screen technology called organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). Consuming less power than liquid-crystal displays, or LCDs, OLEDs can also bend into all sorts of shapes. Samsung Electronics uses them in its latest generation of Galaxy smartphones, and LG Electronics features them in its top-of-the-line TVs.
The industry’s migration away from LCDs has created an opening for Kateeva, a Newark, Calif., company that’s developed an inkjet-printing method to produce OLED displays. Kateeva, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for “writing,” has raised more than $200 million in venture capital since it was spun off from an MIT lab in 2008. Investors include Samsung, Spark Capital, and TCL Capital, the venture capital arm of one of China’s leading electronics companies. “We feel OLED is the future,” says Tong Xuesong, vice president of TCL.
Making OLED displays large enough for TVs is difficult, which is one reason a 65-inch 2016 model OLED TV from LG sells for $4,000, more than twice the price of a comparable LCD set. The process starts with punching tiny holes into a metal stencil called a mask; the mask is then placed over a backplane and sprayed with the organic compounds that form the OLEDs. Slow and costly, it wastes a lot of materials that end up on the stencil rather than the display.
Kateeva’s equipment, which isn’t commercially available, can be more efficient, because it prints directly onto the backplane. The startup has teamed up with DuPont and Sumitomo Chemical to develop OLED inks suitable for its printers. The specs are exacting: The layer of molecular compounds deposited by the inkjet must be no more than 50 nanometers thick and able to dry within 90 seconds. With inkjet technology, “there can be a printed OLED television in the market for $1,000,” says David Flattery, displays business manager for DuPont Electronics & Communications. “That’s what we’re targeting.”
Kateeva co-founder Conor Madigan dismisses some of the OLED TV sets on the market today as “half-OLED” because they rely on a filter to display colors. That makes the screen thicker and dilutes the sharpness, he says, explaining that Kateeva’s inkjet can print red, green, and blue pixels individually, which simplifies the production process. “I can go from 20 machines and drop it down to 3,” Madigan says. In a statement, LG Display said its OLED manufacturing method creates displays that use less power and have better colors.
Tokyo Electron, a semiconductor equipment maker, also offers inkjet-printing tools for OLEDs. But Kateeva’s technology is “more mature,” says TCL’s Tong. Alberto Moel, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein, agrees that Kateeva has an edge on rivals. Madigan and his team “have been pounding at it for years,” he says. “They are pretty far ahead.” Tokyo Electron declined to comment.
Not everyone’s that bullish. OLED materials are very sensitive to moisture; figuring out a way to put them into an ink that can work in a printer is a major challenge, according to Jerry Kang, an analyst at IHS Markit, an industry researcher. IHS projects that OLED sets will make up 2.3 percent of the TV market globally by 2020, up from just 0.4 percent this year.
Kateeva will begin filling some orders for its printing equipment next year, Madigan says, and expects to go into commercial production by late 2018 or early 2019. “We are completing the design work for the first generation,” he says. “That’s our homework over the next year and a half.”
The bottom line: Kateeva, a startup that counts Samsung among its backers, has developed an inkjet-printing method for making OLED displays.