Philips puts small tech to the test;
It needs to beat other technologies

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Sept. 20, 2002 — Philips, like GE, Intel, IBM and Samsung, is a large company that has adopted a small tech R&D program because it sees huge market potential. But Philips is mixing in a healthy dose of skepticism as it prepares small tech-enabled products for market.

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“We are not working on small tech because everybody else is,” explained Koen Joosse, a Philips spokesman. “We are carefully assessing the most promising technologies and only if they prove to be technically feasible, cost effective and give better performance, will we go ahead and use them.”

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Philips, one of Europe’s largest electronics companies with sales of $32 billion in 2001, is active in the areas of lighting, consumer electronics, domestic appliances, components, semiconductors and medical systems. Among its key products are color television sets, lights, electric shavers, medical diagnostic imaging and patient monitoring systems.

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Philips is mainly interested in high-volume markets, where fabrication costs are critical. So if a technology does not allow cost-effective mass production with sufficiently high yields, Philips cannot afford to use it.

An example of Philips’ successful use of small tech in commercial products is the company’s polymer organic light-emitting diode — or PolyLED — display. The company recently introduced the first monochrome PolyLED display in its latest men’s shaver. This is the first version of a range of future products that will incorporate the screens in computer notebooks, ultrathin TVs and ultimately even flexible displays.

The company is now preparing mass production of a full-color passive matrix display that will be launched at the end of next year. According to Martin Fleuster, development manager for PolyLED, these displays are targeted at small-screen devices such as mobile phones and MP3 players.

“I cannot give exact sales figures, but with our current pilot line for monochrome screens, we ship about 200,000 displays that sell for somewhere around $20 this year and expect to triple the volume next year. Since the market, which is 90 percent telecom, turns to full color screens fast, we intend to start up mass fabrication of our full-color display instead of the monochrome one,” Fleuster said.

“Philips worked closely together with CDT (Cambridge Display Technology) to develop the basic idea into a manufacturable technology suited for high-volume production, said Eliav Haskal, project leader of PolyLED research. “While CDT is mainly interested in selling intellectual property, we are focused on bringing this technology to market as soon as possible” using the company’s large facilities, extensive distribution network and financial resources needed to introduce any new technology.

“Our strategy is to work with companies that can help us achieve this goal, such as CDT and Litrex Corp., with whom we co-developed the required inkjet printing technology.”

Philips uses inkjet technology for definition of the color pixels. Each pixel is about 60 microns wide and the final polymer layer thickness is only 70 nanometers. To achieve these dimensions, a special piezoceramic-based inkjet head deposits liquid polymer droplets with a volume as low as 0.02 nanoliters with an inaccuracy of less than 5 percent.

“There are two basic technologies,” said Andrew Murray, senior analyst at iSuppli/Stanford Resources, a market and technology research firm that specializes in the electronic display industry. “Eastman Kodak invented an OLED that is based on vacuum deposition of small organic molecules. Approximately two years later CDT invented the polymer OLED. Companies like Pioneer, Samsung and Philips license the core patents from Kodak and CDT to develop marketable products.”

At the moment, it’s still too early to decide which technology will ultimately win. “The polymer OLED technology has the advantage of lower manufacturing costs due to a simpler process, but it still remains to be proven that it works in high-volume production,” Murray said.

Gerjan van de Walle, leader of the Integrated Device Technologies group at Philips Research, said the company is looking at other small tech applications, including radio frequency (RF) MEMS in next generation wireless applications.

“Integration could, theoretically, result in cheaper solutions,” van de Walle said. “We are currently evaluating the benefits of integrating RF components together with analog and digital electronics on one chip in practice and we still expect some obstacles ahead. Perhaps the technology proves to be more suitable for lower volume niche markets. Again, we’re not into MEMS just because it sounds good; there has to be a real benefit in using this technology.”

Another small technology Philips is investigating is use of carbon nanotubes for displays — also an area the company is approaching with skepticism.

“We have a research group that investigates this application,” van de Walle said. “It is just one of many competing flat display technologies. We are not entirely convinced that carbon nanotube displays will be the most successful, even though some companies are already anticipating its breakthrough on the market.”

Murray agrees: “Research is still in its very early days. There are not a lot of display companies that seriously look into this application of carbon nanotubes,” he said.

“Sometimes, press releases on possible market introduction should be regarded more as PR or fund-raising activity than anything else.”


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