The Wall Street Journal: Samsung stretches lineup, group plans to mass produce flexible mobile-device screens

As the battle for dominance in the smartphone and tablet-computer market intensifies, South Korean conglomerate Samsung is pushing ahead with plans to start mass production of displays using plastic rather than glass, a move that will make mobile devices unbreakable, lighter and bendable.

Samsung’s display unit, Samsung Display Co., is in the last phase of development of so-called flexible displays for mobile devices, which are expected to be released in the first half of next year, a person familiar with the situation said.

It is still unclear when devices using the technology will be available commercially, and Samsung declined to comment on how much it is investing in the displays.

Samsung Group’s flagship company, Samsung Electronics Co, which makes products as diverse as semiconductors, television sets and smartphones, combined its liquid-crystal-display operations with its organic light-emitting diode joint venture, Samsung Mobile Display, earlier this year and turned it into Samsung Display.

The move to mass produce flexible displays comes as global smartphone and tablet makers look to differentiate their products to boost their profit margins and market share in the fast-growing markets.

Samsung’s flexible displays will incorporate OLEDs, a display technology that the South Korean company is already using in its smartphones and television sets.

OLEDs are thin and can be put on flexible material such as plastic or metal foil. By using plastic rather than glass, they make the displays more durable and light. Flexible OLEDs have been in the development phase for many years, and companies including Sony Corp. of Japan and LG Display Co. of South Korea also have launched prototypes. However, manufacturers haven’t been able to commercialize them or use them in devices due to technological barriers in mass production. Samsung hopes it will be first to bring the product to the market.

Samsung’s push has taken on more urgency, because other display makers are also moving to introduce different screen technologies for cellphones and tablets. Sharp Corp. of Japan and LG Display are already selling liquid-crystal displays with technology used for the screens of Apple Inc.’s AAPL iPhone 5. The “in cell” technology makes the smartphone’s screen thinner by integrating touch sensors into the liquid crystal display, eliminating the need for a separate touch-screen layer.

Samsung is able to invest heavily in the display business despite a supply glut of panels as its profits are soaring. In the third quarter, Samsung Electronics’ net profit surged 91% from a year earlier to about $6 billion.

The vice president of Samsung’s display unit, Lee Chang-hoon, said the company is currently sampling the displays with a few customers. Mr. Lee said the release date of a new product based on flexible displays hasn’t been determined yet.

“The key reason for Samsung to use plastic rather than conventional glass is to produce displays that aren’t breakable. The technology could also help lower manufacturing costs and help differentiate its products from other rivals,” said Lee Seung-chul, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities.

Samsung’s success isn’t guaranteed, however.

Sony said it has been researching the technology since 2002, though a spokesman for the company said Monday that it can’t comment on when flexible displays will be mass-produced or commercialized. Two years ago, Sony showcased a 4.1-inch flexible OLED display.

“Samsung is still busy making the original glass-type displays for its latest Galaxy S III smartphones and Galaxy Note II devices, so profit-wise the new displays don’t seem to be that attractive,” said Julius Kim, an analyst at Woori Investment & Securities.


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