Trends from Display Week: The Future of Rollable, Foldable, and Flexible Displays

Last week I went to one of the bigger display conferences which were held in San Jose. The last few years myself, or people from our team, have attended Display Week, and quite often we see all the relevant display trends well ahead of their time before entering the market. We have been seeing the evolution of foldable and flexible displays for many years now, but this year flexible, foldable, and rollable display technology had more booth and overall floor space than any year prior. Our future of rollable, foldable, and flexible displays is finally getting very close.

The Challenges Which Still Remain
While many challenges still exist to bring quality and reliable foldable screen to market the display ecosystem is moving very quickly. It was best articulated with an executive I met at one of the larger Chinese display companies who said there are 3-4 big challenges for foldables and we are only part way through solving the first problem. Since I’m sure many of you do not have to dig through the weeds on this as I do, I’ll briefly summarize the key challenges that lie ahead.

Note, I’m specifically talking about foldable displays that we will see in smartphones, tablets, and PCs. Just putting a flexible display in a car, or retail or any object where durability is not as much of a concern is already much closer to reality than something that folds, and we put in our pocket or case.

Challenge #1 is display thinness. The thinner the display, the easier it can fold in any direction. This appears to be one of the foremost challenges display companies are working on as a part of their manufacturing process. The thinness of the display is the most important variable for flexibility but not one most manufacturing processes have been focused on.

Below was one of the thinner AMOLED flexible displays I saw at the show from BOE. It was 5mm thick and could fold in and out.

Challenge #2 is Durability. Durability is the challenge that most often gets referenced. How to protect the screen of a device that goes in pockets, bags, and can get roughed up is a significant challenge. One only has to look so far at people’s smartphones and see how many consumers live with a cracked smartphone screen to know how big of an issue this is.

While a durable plastic screen cover has been talked about and implemented to date, most experts I talked to believe we need a glass solution. We know Corning is working on flexible glass called Willow, but they did not have any on display at their booth. I did meet with Schott, another company working to solve this problem, which showed a .75mm flexible cover glass.

Glass and plastic will both get stronger as they are bonded to the screen but having the absolute smallest flexible protective shield with a bend radius that can stand hundreds of thousands of bends is still the goal. Similarly, mass manufacturing such glass is not yet feasible, but it is an increased focus.

Challenge #3 relates to the hinge. If the other two problems were not extremely tricky for engineers, introducing a hinge to a display adds many new concerns. Movement introduces variables that relate to not just durability but also allow for dirt, dust, and all sorts of objects from our environment to cause problems to the hinge and display. The hinge is a point of vulnerability for the display and creates areas where dirt or dust can enter the screen and ruin the display.

It was interesting to see how many companies showed up at Display Week to show off their hinge design solutions, testing equipment, and other technologies that are focused on solving the problem of just the hinge for foldable devices. While I still feel this is one challenge that is still years away from being solved, it was good to see the manufacturing ecosystem investing in solving this problem. The sheer number of companies working on this solution alone was one of the bigger differences in the show this year compared to others.

Key Timing Takeaways. While the above challenges are not the only challenges they are a few of the biggest ones the display ecosystem is working on. The big question is when can we realistically expect a solution to come to market that is durable, mass manufacturable, and affordable. From what I’ve seen, we are still at least 2-3 years away from a viable product that can survive in the hands of consumers and likely 4-5 years away from that being affordable.

There will be attempts to accelerate this timeline, but I’m not confident, as of now, that these solutions will stand the market’s abuse and thus run the risk of hurting future adoption. This is a technology where it is going to be better to come to market with a design that we can be confident in rather than just be first. That being said, there is nothing wrong with showing off these innovations and showing the vision and progress of foldable designs. It is the matter of when the product is ready to put in the hands of a mass of consumers that will be the ultimate timing question.

Overall I’m optimistic the mass consumer market will find value in a foldable device. There is work to be done on the software and apps, but we know many consumers will gravitate the largest screen they can possibly fit in their pocket, purse, or bag. This is an evolution of the smartphone design cycle that could potentially ignite life back into smartphones at some point in time. The other thing to think about is how some early augmented reality glasses solutions may align with the timing of foldables smartphones. The more I think about this, the more I think an interesting computing solution could be a foldable paired with an augmented reality headset.

I make that last point bearing in mind the consumer market can only handle so much change at any given time. But if these products were sold as a complete solution, I think we could see some simultaneous adoption.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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