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Universal Display, a leader in OLED, eyes flexible screen

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Janice Mahon, VP of technology and commercialization at Universal Display.
Janice Mahon, VP of technology and commercialization at Universal Display. - ()

The commercialization of smartphones provided a big boost to Universal Display Corp.'s bottom line.
The next big thing: Would you believe a flexible flat-screen TV?

The idea is still developing, but Universal Display anticipates its OLED — organic light-emitting diodes — technology will result in innovations unimaginable just a few years ago. Flexible flat-screens are high on the list.

"We are going to create some new applications that are — to coin an old term — disruptive," said Janice Mahon, vice president of technology and commercialization at Universal Display.

The Ewing-based Universal Display has seen revenue increase more than fivefold in the past four years to $83.2 million, aided by Samsung's adoption of the company's OLED technology for Galaxy smartphones. But Universal Display is hardly resting on laurels.

The company believes OLED displays can make inroads in the flat-panel television business currently dominated by LCD — or liquid crystal display — technology.

OLED flat-panel TVs are already on the market. Samsung and LG have unveiled curved, 55-inch OLED screens, though they sell for around $9,000. Mahon said that price level is expected of early-stage technology.

"Long term, OLEDs should cost less than LCDs, which is one of the key parameters," Mahon said.

But Universal Display says OLED technology stands apart because its organic materials can be built on glass, plastic or metal foil surfaces, making flexible displays possible.

Mahon said Universal Display envisions open-ended possibilities, applicable to TVs, tablets and smartphones and yet-to-be discovered uses.

"The goal eventually is something you can roll up, something you can bend, fold together," Mahon said. "There's a lot of visions out there and a lot of investments being made right now."

Samsung and LG plan to introduce prototypes of flexible OLED TVs next month at the International Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas. LG introduced a flexible smartphone this month.

John Taylor, vice president of LG Electronics USA in Engelwood Cliffs, said the company is eager to see OLED technology unfold. The company expects flexible screens will create a more cinematic television experience, while making smartphones more durable and resistant to sunlight glare. LG also plans to unveil a 77-inch OLED TV.

"It's the first major breakthrough in many years in display technology," Taylor said. "It has an ultra-thin display with a nearly unlimited contrast ratio, making the most realistic and lifelike picture you can see on a TV."

Several barriers still prevent flexible displays from entering the mainstream. New Jersey Institute of Technology Professor Somenath Mitra, who studies the chemistry of OLED technology, says such systems can work on plastic surfaces, but extra precaution is needed to prevent the penetration of oxygen and moisture, which can degrade the materials.

"Once you can solve some of those problems, that opens up doors for flexible display," Mitra said. "The technology is promising."

Universal Display also touts the practical advantages of OLED, a relatively simple setup of thin films on a surface that light up once voltage is applied. The thinner profile and lighter weight of OLED displays consume less energy, an advantage the company says is critical for smartphone consumers concerned about battery life. But Universal Display believes those qualities also apply well to televisions.

The company has patents on phosphorescent OLED technology that enables chemicals to emit light without the aid of a backlight commonly used in fluorescent displays.

Phosphorescent OLED technology is about 25 percent more efficient than LCD, Universal Display says, because backlights generate unneeded heat. OLED also produces sharper images because color contrasts are not distorted by a backlight.

Regardless, the company expects LCD to remain the dominant technology in flat-panel displays for some time as LCD manufacturers continue to make improvements. In the meantime, Universal Display hopes to penetrate the general lighting market, touting its energy-saving advantages. It also plans to expand its niche in smartphones and tablets. There's even talk of Samsung competitor Apple embracing OLED technology.

Big picture, the outlook calls for growth. Universal Display is projecting about $142 million in revenue for 2013, which would mark about a 70 percent increase from 2012. The company has also expanded its 40,000-square-foot headquarters on Phillips Boulevard.

"I personally think that when the whole technology is in place, there are going to be new applications no one has yet thought of," Mahon said.

E-mail to: tomz@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @biztzanki


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