Can Apple save OLEDs?

Speculation is mounting that Apple is set to opt for OLED screens for the 2017 iPhone, a move that  would transform the fortunes of the technology in the lighting sector.

The sheer scale of production involved in the switch from LCD – Apple sold 232 million iPhones last year – would single-handedly drive down prices, increase efficiencies and encourage investment in research and development in OLED, which has been seen as the poor relation to standard LED in the lighting sector.

The main stumbling blocks to the adoption by luminaire manufacturers have been high unit cost, relatively low efficacies and a lack of supplier diversity. Additionally, OLED’s ‘killer app’ – its thinness – has been widely mimicked using LEDs, while its other property – flexibility – is not a mainstream requirement in the lighting sector.

Turning a corner? A renaissance in OLED's fortunes could lead to exciting applications in architectural lighting, where its thinness and flexibility could be used to create interesting effects

The world’s two leading OLED manufacturers, LG and Samsung, are now investing heavily as Apple and other device manufacturers begin to switch in the coming years. 

‘It's true that we were late in OLED investment for smaller electronics devices compared to that of televisions. It's undeniable that flexible OLEDs are now the mega-trend in the mobile segment and we will have to embrace that,’ LG Display chief executive officer Han Sang Beom told Bloomberg.

The news of Apple’s move to OLED will provoke a reassessment among lighting engineers, especially if prices fall significantly. 

As recently as February, Osram CEO Olaf Berlien ruled out OLEDs as an option for luminaires. ‘We will invest in OLED but not for general lighting,’ he told analysts. ‘I don't think that it will be important in the future for general lighting. It's too expensive.’ 

An emergency exit sign illuminated by an OLED panel. This model was exhibited by Etap at the Light + Building exhibition. If OLED prices fall, we could see widespread adoption of the tech in the lighting sector

Last year, the industry’s largest player Philips’ quit the technology altogether.

There was a time when OLEDs were seen as complementary – and sometimes even a rival – to conventional LEDs. Unlike LEDs, which are essentially point sources of light, OLEDs consist of illuminated sheets which are bendable. If they could be made cost-effectively, then they could have exciting applications in architectural lighting.

The problem of high cost has been compounded by rapid developments in LEDs: increases in efficiency have far outpaced those of OLEDs, and prices have tumbled, fuelled by the Chinese government’s strategic goal of becoming a world leader in LEDs.

 

  • A wide range of OLED luminaires will be unveiled at the LuxLive 2016 exhibition in London on Wednesday 23 November and Thursday 24 November 2016. Entry is free if you pre-register. Click on the logo for more information.