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IBM method could mean cheaper flat panels

Big Blue has created a new way to manufacture flat-panel displays that it asserts will boost production and lower costs.

IBM has created a new way to manufacture flat-panel displays that it asserts will improve production and lower costs.

The technique, which officially will be announced Thursday, could improve production efficiency for manufacturers in what is quickly becoming a commodity market. This could translate into cheaper laptops and handheld computers for consumers because flat panels, or liquid crystal displays, are often the most expensive component in such products.

The new technique is "remarkably simple" and consolidates a number of manufacturing steps, said Praveen Chaudhari, the IBM researcher who first thought of the idea.

"We basically replaced a technique that involved a rubbing process using a roller that looks like a paint roller to align a substrate for the addition of crystals," Chaudhari said Wednesday. "Now what we can do is, using an ion-beam gun, shoot atoms at a substrate to align it and prepare it for the addition of liquid crystals."

Crystals that are properly aligned turn pixels on and off when they twist and rotate in response to electronic signals from a computer.

The rolling technique is commonly used by flat-panel manufacturers and introduces inefficiencies, as it entails a number of steps--steps that become unnecessary in the IBM method.

"Four steps are replaced by two from the process," DisplaySearch analyst Ross Young said.

Rubbing also increases the likelihood of streaks and contaminants on the displays.

IBM is already testing a manufacturing line using the new technique and expects production to begin by the end of the year.

"This is definitely an innovation that will lead to improved yields and lower costs, which means higher margins for manufacturers," Young said. "But it probably won't have a near-term impact because it will take time for manufacturers to adopt and implement the new technique."

Following a scarcity in the supply of liquid crystal displays, or flat panels, during the late 1990s, manufacturers began to ramp up production to meet demand for increasingly popular notebooks, handheld computers and cell phones. A surplus in the market has since ensued, resulting in falling prices of LCDs.