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Spoiling for a display battle royale

Cambridge Display Technology CEO David Fyfe wants to dethrone LCD technology with an alternative that he says will lead to thinner, lighter and lower-power monitors. He has his work cut out.

Cambridge Display Technology is no slouch when it comes to ambition: The start-up is working on a technology designed to dethrone the $29 billion liquid crystal display industry.

CDT, which licenses its patents and technologies to other companies, is working on polymer organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display technology, which promises thinner, lighter and less power-consuming displays than today's LCDs.

But the technology demands large quantities of key materials and the construction of plants to make the flat-panel displays--and it takes time, and a fair amount of convincing, to get suppliers to come up with these. That's part of the task ahead for the Cambridge, England-based company's 59-year-old chief executive, David Fyfe, who recently spoke with CNET about the future of the emerging technology and its potential use in computing devices.

Q: What role is CDT playing in furthering the use of organic light-emitting diode display technology?

We own the fundamental patent in the use of large-molecule light-emitting polymer, and so anybody who wants to make a display using that technology has to have a license from us.
A: We're essentially trying to make it as easy as possible for display companies to make a decision to pick up our technology and invest in it. And that ranges from encouraging the material suppliers to develop better and better materials, to encouraging chipmakers to design chips that are specific to light-emitting polymer displays, to encouraging machine manufacturers to develop better machines for manufacture of the devices. Last but not least, inkjet printing is looking more and more like the defining characteristic of this technology from a manufacturing viewpoint.

Are you developing ways to use polymer OLED technology in displays?
We own the fundamental patent in the use of large-molecule light-emitting polymer, and so anybody who wants to make a display using that technology has to have a license from us. We've also built up a portfolio of over 100 patents which go alongside that first patent and are available to the licensee for use. So, basically, we are going out there and selling a license to a display maker to allow him to exploit the technology.

There are two types of technologies in the OLED industry--small-molecule and polymer--and the two companies, Kodak and CDT, that are mostly responsible for those technologies are taking an intellectual property role. Can you talk about some of the advantages of being a licensing company in an emerging industry?
Kodak is different. Ours is a pure IP and technology-transfer role. Kodak is really doing two things: They're licensing, but at the same time they're going into manufacturing--in their case, in a joint venture with Sanyo. The benefit of our model is that we don't have any conflict of interest. Nobody is left worrying whether we're going to restrict the number of licenses because that will create competition to us as a manufacturer.

What's the point of the CDT-Seiko Epson partnership?
We are co-developing, with Seiko Epson, inkjet printing technology for the laying-down of the polymer in light-emitting displays. It's very much an enabling technology partnership. It has nothing to do with manufacturing. We have no relationship with Seiko Epson in the manufacturing of displays.

What is the major difference between polymer and small-molecule OLED displays?
If you look at the display, you would not be able to tell the difference. But in the manufacturing side, the small molecules don't dissolve in solvents and they require vacuum evaporation. That is a more cumbersome process than inkjet printing, because you need high-vacuum equipment in order to effectively deposit the light-emitting layer. Whereas in the CDT technology, you need to put it under an inkjet printer, and you don't need a particularly well-controlled environment other than it being in a clean room.

There is a lot of capital invested in the LCD market, and it is not going to roll over and play dead.

Industry watchers have talked about OLED challenging LCD. But they say that it will be 10 years before it is a serious threat to the LCD market. How does polymer technology affect that timetable?
It speeds it up. If you look at LCD, and you look at polymer, there are very many more manufacturing steps in LCD than there are in polymer display. The simplicity of manufacturing usually translates into yield. I think that what is being underestimated is the time it will take polymer to go up the yield curve and therefore be able to compete on a yield basis with what's been achieved in 20 years in LCDs.

Do you have a revised timetable in mind?
There is a lot of capital invested in the LCD market, and it is not going to roll over and play dead. The fact is that (the display market) is a very rapidly expanding segment. You're talking about a $50 billion display market today, and you're talking about $85 billion by 2005. That means there has to be new capacity put in, and the question then is: Is that LCD capacity, or does it leave room for a new technology to have significant investment in the next five years? Provided that the new technology is capable of delivering what (customers) need for particularly large screen displays, then that capacity is going to go in.

So do you think in five years there will be large polymer displays on the market?
You'll see a significant percentage of the display market being done in polymer within that time frame.

Do you think that having two methods of developing OLED displays slows down the market?
It's healthy to have two competing OLED technologies, because they both look and feel the same. So it only gives OLED a bigger profile in the market place, and the manufacturers will decide which tech dominates at the end of the day.

Does that push out the time frame in which OLED can challenge LCD?
It's not a factor.

What are some of the major challenges for OLED?
For LEP (light-emitting polymer displays) on the material side, you have to get a longer lifetime for blue; and (to get) some of the other characteristics of the material to improve quickly--such as efficiency--to cut power consumption; and color stability. Getting inkjet printing demonstrated as a viable manufacturing process, and to establish a supply chain for the machines and printing heads, will also help companies to pick the technology up.