Transparent conductive film companies at a crossroads

Tuesday, 30 January, 2018

Transparent conductive film companies at a crossroads

These coming quarters are crucial decision times for many transparent conductive film (TCF) companies.

Some are losing patience with their programs, questioning if and when their efforts will turn into notable revenues. Others must decide whether their technology is right for emerging larger area and lower resistance applications, and if and when they should make an investment into larger processing facilities. And finally, some are wondering if the market will finally turn a page, enabling them to arrest or exit the current strategy of constantly using price falls as their only real lever to stay relevant.

The report ‘Transparent Conductive Films (TCF) 2017-2027: Forecasts, Markets, Technologies’, from market research company IDTechEx, provides answers. The report offers comprehensive and global coverage of TCF technologies, assessing silver nanowires, various types of metal mesh, PEDOT, graphene, microwire, carbon nanotubes and more. The report also includes an analysis of existing and emerging applications, a segmented 10-year market forecast, and profiles and updates on companies from across the world.

Status quo serves no-one well

The market is at an interesting juncture. ITO (indium tin oxide) has managed to stay highly relevant as the dominant incumbent, thanks to its low cost. This is despite it not being the best technology, at least on paper. The alternatives have, however, also now matured as a technology, with some technologies and suppliers even securing a growing foothold in the market.

The status quo, however, is not sufficient for sustaining all TCF technologies and suppliers. The power still firmly resides with the buyers and price competition reigns supreme amongst suppliers. The TCF technology, for current applications, is highly commoditised. This shows no sign of changing for current applications unless supply is unexpectedly interrupted.

The major question now is whether the market composition will finally change, creating substantial new demand and allowing companies to differentiate also based on performance.

Markets beyond consumer electronics emerge

A longstanding trend in the TCF business has been the increasing application area. In general, this implies two needs: (1) the ability to process large-area films and (2) the ability to offer lower sheet resistance to maintain performance levels.

Indeed, a few years ago, the market was very excited as it got a whiff of a transition beyond tablet-sized touch screens. This market, however, proved slow to develop, undershooting even the more conservative estimates. This was partly because the value chain was not quite ready.

This may be about to change. Pro-cap touch sensing is slowly gaining market share even in larger displays. This trend is expected to accelerate as large touch screens become more popular in cars.

Indeed, many are now focusing on the automotive sector as a major addressable market. The need here is to consistently supply reliable, low-resistance, curved and large-area sheets. It is also to address needs in transparent heating as a replacement for printed demisters. In fact, ITO alternatives such as silver nanowires have already established a market here, first for side mirrors and next for bigger windows. Low sheet resistance and high transparency are critical here.

Furthermore, pro-cap is also coming to tables, ultra-large interactive displays, whiteboards and so on. These applications cannot be served by ITO while optical means have their own limitations. The current technologies based on microwires do work, but mostly in their niches such as outdoor advertising. This market will also grow, opening up yet another opportunity outside standard consumer electronics like mobiles, tablets and laptops.

Developments on many fronts like OLED lighting and OPVs will remain muted in the short term. This is because these technologies largely remain overpriced and underperforming. That is, however, not to say that there is no progress: production capacity for OLED lighting is expanding, transitioning to Gen-5 in the hope of supplying high-differentiated and premium-priced exterior automotive lights. The supply chain for OPVs is also active with both OPV printers and evaporators planning a transition towards wider webs. At these points, TCF suppliers — particularly those offering low resistance and flexibility — will need to engage with module makers now to get embedded in the final designs, but large sales volume will still have to wait.

IME, or in-mould electronics, is also an active development. Here, transparent conductive materials with other functional and graphical inks are coated on a 2D plastic sheet before being formed into a 3D object. This way, the electronics will be structurally embedded, creating novel designs and saving space. This approach requires TCF technologies that can survive a significant stretching event as the film goes from 2D to 3D. This technology has been demonstrated at the prototype level by multiple firms and is now in late-stage qualification period for both home appliance and automotive sectors. This, too, is another front to closely monitor.

There are many other interesting applications around. Film-based smart windows are being produced, requiring large-area flexible TCF technologies. Here, depending on the required response time, the conductivity level requirements may be relaxed, opening the door for the likes of PEDOT. Transparent antennas have meanwhile been commercialised using metal mesh, but there is much further room to grow.

To invest or not to invest

The rise of these new markets presents risky choices to ITO alternative suppliers and users. Many metal mesh companies succeeded in staying cost competitive by using legacy photo-patterning equipment that was already largely depreciated. They now must decide whether they can replicate their success if they invest in new large-format photo-patterning equipment. Some in Asia have already invested and commissioned facilities to exclusively focus on large-area films, yet others are hesitantly sitting on the fence.

Hybrid metal mesh producers (eg, emboss plus print or fill, or print then photo-pattern) are faced with similar questions since most current machines serve markets only up to the tablet size. Should they take a plunge and prepare to manufacture large-format low-resistance metal mesh films or should they stay put?

Metal mesh printers have come a long way, demonstrating that direct printing can produce sufficiently narrow linewidths. The work thus far, however, has been limited to narrow-format films printed at low speeds. Therefore, while in theory printing lends itself well to large-area production, in practise, the technology still has a long way to go to demonstrate commercial viability at larger areas. Progress, however, has gathered unprecedented momentum, so watch this space.

Solution-coated technologies like silver nanowires, carbon nanotubes and PEDOT also, in theory, lend themselves well to wide width webs. They are, however, also not challenge-free. For example, for silver nanowire, the coating challenge is whether large-area films can achieve low haze and high smoothness. Furthermore, for many applications, the large-area coated films may then need to be patterned. This too will require a commitment to form a stronger ecosystem.

To learn more about the dynamics of the TCF industry, consult the IDTechEx report.

Top image credit: © Nivens

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