From the old to the new: transparent conductive films and materials

IDTechEx
Friday, 15 February, 2019


From the old to the new: transparent conductive films and materials

The market composition of transparent conductive films (TCF) and materials (TCM) has not dramatically shifted for some years. It is heavily reliant on select markets such as flat consumer small/medium-sized electronic touch screens.

Indeed, the IDTechEx Research report ‘Transparent Conductive Films and Materials 2018–2028: Forecasts, Technologies, Players’ puts this reliance around 85–90% today. The emergence of new applications has also been slower than many had predicted and hoped. This report finds that so-called ‘old’ applications still make up the vast majority of the market.

This reliance must change. In fact, it is about to change: IDTechEx Research projects that ‘new’ applications will rise to represent around half of the market within the decade. This change will bring about new opportunities and a renewed sense of excitement to the market.

The curse of the old

The industry has struggled to significantly break free from the dominance of applications which we term as ‘old’. These applications include a variety of flat touch screens on LCDs, OLEDs and other display technologies across product categories such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops, monitors/all-in-ones, etc.

The industry has frequently proven too optimistic about the opening up of new significant applications. Several years ago, it had forecast the prominence of touch monitors and all-in-ones. This disappointed many, especially ITO alternative makers, because these technologies often commanded clear performance advantages in large surface area devices. Another example was flexible displays. The industry, despite what IDTechEx argued, underestimated the time required to transition from a prototype at a show to full production with good yields and product concepts in reality. The same pattern has also been repeated in the past with other applications such as organic photovoltaics (OPVs), OLED lighting, etc.

This inability to break free has had adverse consequences. One is that it has kept the market pie somewhat rigid. This has stifled innovation and has hampered the commercial success of alternatives. This, in turn, has meant a more crowded market, both in terms of technology options and the number of suppliers, thus intensifying the price pressure and the market share competition.

Furthermore, the fortunes of the industry have remained tied to the consumer electronics industry. This has meant repeated boom-and-bust cycles and relentless price pressures. These challenges will continue so long as this dependence exists. For example, now that sales of Apple are forecast to fall the ripple effects will be felt across the value chain.

Time of rejuvenation

The market is changing character. This change, it is important to note, will not have come about overnight. New applications such as flexible displays and flexible organic devices have been in the marking for 12–15 years. Many ITO alternatives too have been in the commercial development phase for 15+ years. The transition henceforth will also not be revolutionary given the outsize weight and inertia of incumbent applications. The transition towards new applications will, however, be accelerated.

Changing of guard from old to new?

Flexible displays are finally about to arrive. There have already been announcements in late 2018 from Samsung and Royole. Others have followed or will follow suit. The value chain is also largely in place and the technology is nearly ready. The question of yield and exact production definitions will remain. Indeed, it may take a few attempts and integration to get the right products into the market and the first products will not necessarily be the best. Nonetheless, this paradigm is here to stay, bringing benefits to those who have travelled furthest along the flexible display technology learning curve.

The impact on TCF/TCM will be interesting. In general, ITO films will not provide sufficient flexibility. The product concepts are around 2–3 mm bending radius to achieve foldability. This puts it beyond the realm of ITO performance. The space is therefore open to alternatives.

Indeed, many had considered flexible displays as a game changer or a panacea for the ITO alternative industry. Transparent Conductive Films and Materials 2018–2028: Forecasts, Technologies, Players finds that the reality will, however, be mixed. Some solutions, especially in the short to medium term, will require add-on touch film based on a flexible transparent conducting technology such as silver nanowires. The substrates may be based on PI or even double as a barrier film. Others, however, will, as is already the case in multiple instances, adopt an embedded solution. Here, a metal mesh structure will be formed atop the thin film encapsulation or TFE. In the long term this solution will even become a part of the TFE structure itself. This approach eliminates one layer, thus thinning the device and rendering it more flexible. It, however, requires excellent yield of production since a defect in the last step will waste not just the touch later but the entire device including the OLED stack, the TFTs, the TFE layers, etc. Thus, low yield is extremely expensive. This, together with the existing patents, acts as a technical and legal barrier slowing down the diffusion of this approach to the entire industry despite it offering higher flexibility.

Large-area touch is another promising market. This market was previously stagnant and was cornered by optical touch sensing solutions. Now the market is picking up and capacitive touch is gaining traction. The main use cases are in educational establishments, businesses and public spaces. The educational establishment market is strongly affected by legislative requirements and the trends in China support growth in this sector. The unit numbers are far below the likes of phones, but the areas involved are larger. The larger areas also demand low sheet resistance solutions, thus giving way to ITO alternatives.

Today, silver nanowires are being used. The coating is with wide-format R2R gravure or slot die, and patterning is with laser. Metal mesh on large films is also being offered. Here, manufacturers with a legacy business in plasma display production are particularly active since their depreciated assets and existing know-how give them a cost and time advantage. As always, ITO film producers also do not wish to fall behind and are demonstrating interesting ITO/metal hybrid solutions with low sheet resistances. For all these technologies, IDTechEx believe stringent cost targets will be set, making it difficult for some suppliers to remain.

Other applications are also making some progress. OPVs are in production although the scale is still very small. Most production takes place on narrow web widths (<300 mm) running at low web speeds. Aggregate and individual revenues are also low. This technology is also, however, no longer young. Indeed, in terms of technology maturity, it is at a high level today. The question, however, is still about the market need and product definition. The industry is yet to launch a mass product beyond customised low-volume demonstration in which the value of the panel itself is small. In OPVs too, flexibility and low sheet resistance are required.

OLED lighting is also making slow progress. Mass production of OLED lighting is challenging, especially given the cost and price reference set by inorganic LEDs. Roll-to-roll production, however, remains especially difficult despite years of effort and investment. The progress here will remain slow. The long-term prospects are, however, good because the lighting market is huge and because it tolerates a wide range of technologies, performances, costs points and so on.

In general, the market is transitioning beyond just old application. This transition has been in the making for many years but is now gathering pace.

Transparent Conductive Films and Materials 2018–2028: Forecasts, Technologies, Players provides 10-year market forecasts for 20 applications including add-on and embedded touch technologies in mobiles, smart watches, tablets, notebooks, AiOs, automotive displays; rigid as well as flexible OLED display markets; p-cap in large-sized touch displays; OPVs and OLED lighting; etc. The report also segments its forecasts by 10 technology options, including ITO, silver nanowires, various metal mesh technologies (photolithography, direct printing, embossing, hybrid and so on), graphene, carbon nanotubes, PEDOT and others. For more information, visit www.IDTechEx.com/tcf.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Rawf8

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