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Motorola to build thin displays

Motorola has been working quietly on a factory to produce thin displays in the United States.

Motorola has been working quietly on a factory to produce thin displays in the United States, one of at least two U.S. companies now pushing into a field historically dominated by Asian vendors.

Candescent, the other, has trumpeted its new plant to produce a new type of thin display--but in some ways Motorola is further ahead.

Almost all thin displays today are based on liquid crystal display (LCD) technology. LCDs are used typically in notebook PCs and small consumer electronics devices. But Motorola and Candescent have come up with new--and potentially better--technologies and are now building plants to make these novel displays.

Motorola has built and equipped a 275,000-square-foot field emission display (FED) facility in Tempe, Arizona, and has 350 people working on the technology, said spokesman Barry Moehring. It plans to begin selling samples of its own FEDs in early 1999, with manufacturing in high gear by the end of 1999.

Motorola and Candescent agree that FEDs could provide the best of both of today's two dominant display types: the brightness of the bulky cathode ray tubes (CRTs) used on most desktops today and the thinness of LCDs. But the companies are pursuing somewhat different strategies.

Motorola's "pilot production facility" is smaller than Candescent's 340,000-square-foot plant, and Motorola is using it to debug its manufacturing process and make products for its "entry markets"--the first likely buyers of FED screens. Eventually, though, Motorola has bigger plans--perhaps for another, larger facility.

"We're planning on being big in this business," Moehring said, and to meet that goal, Motorola eventually will need the ability to make more screens.

One measure of the difference between Motorola's current plant and Candescent's planned facility is the size of the pieces of glass on which the display is based. That glass size is linked to the eventual production capacity of the plant, since each piece of glass is chopped up into smaller bits that become the screens.

Motorola uses glass that's 370mm by 470mm, a notch smaller than Candescent's planned 590mm by 670 size.

Motorola will start selling its products in the form of a display that measures 5.6 inches across the diagonal, with a resolution of 480 by 320 pixels. Motorola is targeting the display for the automotive and transportation industry, to be used by manufacturers of products such as front-seat navigation displays or back-seat entertainment displays, Moehring said. Motorola also plans to sell screens to companies who want to use them in boats, medical devices, and factory floor equipment, he added.

As time goes on, Motorola will make larger screens between 8 and 10 inches across with resolutions of 800 by 600 pixels, he said. "We definitely think this technology is scalable to other sizes," he said.

Current notebook computers usually have screens between 12.1 and 14.1 inches across.

Made in the U.S.A.
Building screen factories in the United States is a new twist in the flat-panel display industry. Asia dominates the LCD business with big factories in Japan and, increasingly, Taiwan. Asian companies have expertise in high-volume precision manufacturing, had cheaper access to investment capital when the display factories were built, according to Dave Mentley, a vice president at Stanford Resources. In addition, Asian companies were better able to make long-term investments than U.S. companies focusing on quarterly financial reports, he said.

But choosing Tempe, Arizona, was an easy decision for Motorola, Moehring said. Motorola already has 20,000 employees in the area, many of them focusing on advanced production techniques for microchips that also are needed to build FEDs, Moehring said.

In an effort to build flat-panel display expertise in the United States, the U.S. government has been helping the U.S. Display Consortium, a hybrid public-private organization devoted to fostering the U.S. display industry. Motorola is not participating in the consortium, Moehring said.

Although Motorola of course wants to win customers for its FED products, the company wishes success to its FED competitors--companies such as PixTech and Candescent.

"In a sense, we're competing with LCD, not other FED companies," Moehring said. "If they announce a win, it's good for us, too." Most major customers will need a second source for their screens, he noted.

The ups and downs of FEDs
FEDs use an array of tiny electron guns to "excite" phosphors, the tiny particles that emit light in ordinary CRTs.

FEDs offer several advantages over competing display technologies. They generally consume less power than LCDs or CRTs, they aren't afflicted by cold or heat the way LCDs are, they can be viewed from a wider angle than LCDs, and they don't suffer the smearing or dimming that afflicts LCDs showing video images.

But FEDs aren't easy to make, as demonstrated by the fact that the technology has been around for years, but products are only starting to emerge.

One problem of FEDs is that it requires two plates of glass, separated by a narrow gap with no air. Because of the vacuum between the glass plates, the plates are pulled together like a self-compressing sandwich, so FED manufacturers must find a way to keep the plates separated without disturbing the electrons traveling from one plate to the other. Candescent has 30 patents for their separation technology.