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Sharp’s Announcement on Oxide TFT LCDs: Technology Breakthrough or Attempt to Change the Subject?

Recently, Sharp has been the subject of many news stories and rumors about its LCD business, and the company has tried to take control of the discussion with several announcements. The rapid-fire news emphasizes the challenges the company faces, as well as highlights the technical prowess of the last remaining top tier Japanese LCD maker. Consider the following:

All leading LCD and AMOLED producers have been working on oxide semiconductor TFTs (typically a-IGZO). IGZO offers the potential of low cost and electron mobilities of 10-30X those of a-Si. Higher electron mobility can be used to reduce device size and increase aperture ratio, enhance electronic device integration on to the glass, increase TFT speed, ultra high definition (UD) displays like 4K × 2K at 240 Hz, and is sufficient to drive AMOLED pixels. It is unclear exactly when Sharp started research on oxide semiconductors for TFT LCD, but in December 2009 Sharp presented a paper at IDW Japan suggesting that it had resolved all major issues inhibiting IGZO FPD mass production.

After months of silence, Sharp’s recent announcement stated that it will begin production on its Gen 8 Kameyama line by the end of 2011. The company implied production will target small and medium LCDs, presumably including tablet displays. This implies the potential for a huge amount of production volume: DisplaySearch calculates that if Sharp uses 25% of Kameyama G8 capacity to make tablet panels, it could produce about 33 million panels per year.

Mass production of oxide semiconductor based FPDs would be a major milestone for the industry. Sharp has made many manufacturing breakthroughs, including the first Gen 6, Gen 8 and Gen 10 fabs and UV²A optical alignment. Now it looks like Sharp may become the world’s first commercial producer of oxide semiconductor-based LCDs.

If Sharp is successful with IGZO, it will be another notch in its technology portfolio. But it is unclear if it offers enough benefit to small/medium displays to gain significant market share, and it is unclear how big the near term market for UD displays is. Oxide semiconductors in themselves may not be big enough to overcome high production costs in Japan, heavy reliance on the Japanese market, and increasing global competition. Unless Sharp can rapidly develop AMOLEDs, which gain the most from IGZO, it may find once again that the best way to capitalize on its technical prowess is to license it to another manufacturer.

Considering the long list of rumors about and announcements by Sharp since the beginning of this year, it is easy to wonder about its motivation for timing the IGZO announcement now. Was the early announcement a calculated effort to publish optimistic news in the face of the Gen 8 and 10 line shut down, the concern that the Gen 6 LTPS fab with Apple could be in danger, and general concerns about Sharp’s long-term FPD strategy?

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  • Griff Resor

    Hi Charles, interesting article. IGZO certainly has been off to a slow start. Have you calculated the area needed to make the TFT with a mobility of only 25? Does the aperture for a “retina” display remain large enough to compete for Apple applications? These portable displays are extremely sensitive to battery life issues, as you know. This is not a trick question, I haven’t done the calculation. Seems to me LTPS may prevail. As you point out the “advantages” of a Gen 8 sheet capability don’t seem to apply in this case. Hmmm. I’ll see what I can learn at SID.

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