February 18, 2017
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What’s taking Flexible Display so long to come out?

Flexible display: you’ve probably heard of this before. The tech world has been waiting for the release of devices featuring flexible OLEDs for years. So where are they? Are they going to appear this time for real? Is it any better than the rigid flat screen of mobile phones, tablets, and smartwatches?

There has been a steady growth of interest from various consumer electronics manufacturers for flexible display and with good reason. Flexible display gives certain types of electronics some much-needed flexibility and lightness, like e-readers, mobile phones, and even wearable tech.

What can they do?

Instead of rigid glass, flexible display is based on a flexible substance which can be plastic, metal, or flexible glass. If it’s plastic or metal, it’s lighter, thinner, and more durable—even shatter-proof.

Right now, Samsung and LG are racing to come up with a real, flexible and bendy mobile phone, but not before slowly introducing it to the market. Samsung is focusing on curved displays right now, which seems like they’re dipping their toes in the water before going full force into flexible display.

It’s important, however, that there is a distinction between curved display and flexible display. Curved displays are curved but rigid, not flexible. They stay in one shape only, unlike flexible displays which can be made to assume different (though limited) configurations. One problem that it needs to overcome is that most device parts are rigid and will not assume the flexibility of the display material.

Another problem is, how flexible can these things get before consumers start destroying them and causing product returns? It’s no wonder it’s taking a long time of testing for tech companies before coming up with innovative uses for the technology.

Be that as it may, the potential for this technology is vast if they managed to overcome all the challenges that come with it, though we may not know all possible uses for it yet.

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Where are they?

With these problems in mind, it becomes even harder to produce them in large volumes. This is the cause of the noticeable delay for the technology to appear in our devices: nobody seems to be making enough of them. Dr. Bill Liu from Royole, the company who first unveiled a 0.01mm thin flexible color display in 2014, said that “it’s a high investment area, so no one has experience designing products for flexible displays yet because no one is making enough of them”.

Without enough volume of these things out there, companies will be reluctant to take the risk on a new project  even if the technology is new and captivating. For such a tiny thing, there’s so much complex technology going on behind flexible screens, as well.

“There are a lot of things going on with a flexible display,” said Dr. Liu. “There are many different materials – semiconductors, conductors, insulators, barriers, substrates – that you have to combine into a very thin film. If you change a single material you probably have to change many others to make everything compatible.”

This is why some companies, like Royole, have opted to start their own production facilities to produce the technology. Royole did this by raising $200 million in capital and starting their own production facilities in China.

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Bigger things in small packages

Flexible display puts together two trends that we’ve seen in mobile phones in the last two decades. Before colored screens, we put a premium on portability. Smaller is better, cooler, and more expensive. But with the advent of full-color displays in mobile phones, the game has changed. Consumer electronics manufacturers raced on who could give the largest and best performing mobile displays, which gave rise to oversized mobile phones, tablets, and phablets.

With a flexible display, you can have large-screen video experience while keeping it portable. Dr. Liu states: “What people really want is a way to combine portability and a large-screen video experience into one device. Even if the device itself is rigid, at least it’s portable. That’s good enough for most people because they just want a larger screen when they watch movies. Screen size is the key, so everything else could keep the same style as today.”

He also said that folding screens aren’t the only possible applications for the technology, but also screens that roll and unroll so devices can fit into ever smaller spaces.

It won’t be long before we see these flexible wonders in the market in a few years. Dr. Liu reassures us that though it may take a few years, it won’t take many years.

He isn’t worried that the technology is taking too long. There’s a genuine interest and demand for the technology so it’s about time that flexible displays show up. In recent years, the market still isn’t ready to support the technology yet. It’s a real challenge for design teams to find new ways to innovate on flexible screen and integrate them on people’s various lifestyles. But the world is changing quickly and perhaps we’re readier now than we were before.