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Joint venture to light up display tech

Inkjet printer company Seiko Epson and start-up Cambridge Display team up to popularize an emerging display technology that could rival liquid crystal displays.

Inkjet printer company Seiko Epson and start-up Cambridge Display Technology formed a joint venture on Friday aimed at popularizing an emerging display technology that could eventually rival liquid crystal displays.

The two companies formed Polyink, which will create equipment and provide services to display companies looking to manufacture organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens.

Polyink will use inkjet printer technology from Seiko Epson along with inks from U.K.-based Cambridge Display. Those inks contain light-emitting polymers, the key component of OLEDs. The companies expect the joint venture to produce high-resolution, active matrix displays in high volumes by 2004.

While OLED remains a fledgling technology when it comes to large-sized displays, the joint venture should help increase the speed of its development. Manufacturers have demonstrated some large OLED displays, but so far practical use of the technology has been limited to small screens such as those in cell phones.

Researchers expect OLED screens to be brighter and--because they don't require back-lighting--thinner than liquid crystal displays, but analysts have estimated that OLED is about 10 years away from challenging LCD as the dominant display technology.

According to projections by market research firm iSuppli/Stanford Resources, revenue from the OLED market in 2002 will be $112 million and will increase to $1.2 billion by 2006. Revenue from the LCD market will reach $29 billion in 2002 and increase to $52 billion by 2006.

iSuppli/Stanford Resources analyst Kimberly Allen said Friday's announcement "eases the process of becoming a producer of OLED displays and offers more companies the chance to get into the game sooner and help to develop the market more quickly."

Allen added that Cambridge Display, a key intellectual property holder of OLED technology, has been busy signing partnerships with companies all along the display manufacturing chain. Among them are Philips, which announced in April that it was the first polymer-based OLED maker to be shipping large volumes of small displays for cell phones and pagers. Seiko Epson has been a Cambridge Display licensee since 1998.

Cambridge Display has been playing catch-up to Eastman Kodak, which has its own version of OLED technology called "small molecule" OLED. Cambridge has been promoting polymer-based OLED technology, which differs from small molecule in the way light-emitting particles are distributed on a substrate, the layer of material that sits behind a transparent surface to create a screen. In the polymer method, particles are basically sprayed in liquid form onto a substrate, whereas with the small molecule approach, particles are evaporated and allowed to settle onto the substrate.

Supporters of polymer OLED suggest that polymer requires less expensive equipment than small molecule and is also less time-consuming to manufacture.

"Polymer is a relatively new field," said Stewart Hough, vice president of business development at Cambridge Display. "Kodak has been able to gain licensees, which is good for the industry, but with polymer there can be a shift in the manufacturing approach that could result in lower (manufacturing) costs and higher throughput."