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Pete Brewis - Editorial Comment

Issue 56 Aug / Sep 2010

With our Editor busy introducing the newest member of the James family to the world (our congratulations to him), I’ve had the opportunity to stand in at a number of events this summer – including the OLED Insider conference held in London this June.

After years of attending seminars and press conferences where one group stands up to extol the virtues of a specific product or development, it was unusual – and refreshing – to be in a room where no one party claimed to have all the answers – and in which pretty much everyone was looking to their neighbour for an inkling of what might be on the horizon. There was much talk of road maps and killer apps, but mostly a huge appetite for discussion and an exchange of ideas.

As far as road maps are concerned, the major lighting manufacturers have already set off on their different routes, having taken their best guess at which direction will prove the most rewarding. For them the conference was essentially a chance to pull over and ask for directions. These OLED manufacturers deal with the realities of production and cost remains a major factor. With enough investment thrown at R&D, the key players are confident that the required lm/W and a desirable form factor can be achieved, but creating enough medium-term demand to make ongoing development of such a product financially viable, is a problem awaiting a solution.

Enter the ‘killer application’ – that one use that perfectly suits OLEDs, driving up demand and driving down production costs. It may be that this will come from a different industry altogether, as it did with inorganic LEDs. High visibility vests was one suggested example. Advertising signage another. There are many avenues to go down, but what the manufacturers really want to know is what the lighting industry actually wants, what it needs and where should manufacturers concentrate their efforts?

It seems clear from the conference debates that traditional luminaire manufacturers may be out of the loop on this one. The benefits of a super-slim light source are lost as soon as it’s built into a fixture, and we have already seen impressive examples of inorganic LEDs edge-lighting near transparent glass sheets to create illuminated panels. With the exception of decorative lighting design, there seems little call for OLED panels.

So perhaps we need to break the industry’s life-long habit of using a new technology to directly retrofit the last. Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking of OLED as a luminaire and consider its use as a building material, weaving it in with the fabric of a structure. OLED manufacturers seem aware of this. They have already begun to sidestep fixture developers and, perhaps for the first time, talk directly to lighting designers. Consequently, both designer and manufacturer are having to learn the other’s language and ideologies.

What, the manufacturers ask, do lighting designers want from OLED?  What do they want them to do? Lighting designers, however, seem to approach the debate from a different angle. They begin with the lighting scheme they want to achieve and then start to look for the best products to match their vision. What, they ask, can OLEDs do? And so we’re back to the beginning.

One thing that does seem to appeal to the lighting designer is the promise of a flexible light source, the ability to mould light itself without the clutter of a luminaire to provide it. Another is the potential, as yet theoretic, of amalgamating OLED and photovoltaic properties, to reduce running costs and C02 emissions.

Even then, there remains some big questions still to be answered: Who will develop the driver technology for OLED? Will there still be a role for OLED by the time it reaches technological maturity? It seems it may be a while until OLEDs reach their destination – whatever that destination may be.



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