Canon and Toshiba Go Their Own Way In Flat Panels

New technology plus competition spawn another Asian alliance

Well-heeled consumers around the globe are eagerly installing digital home theaters consisting of DVD players, jumbo TVs, and booming sound systems to match. To meet the soaring demand, Japanese manufacturers of large flat-panel screens are scrambling to form joint ventures around differing technologies. The link-ups allow allies to share technologies, production facilities, and investment costs. This consolidation makes it easier to compete with rivals both at home and in South Korea and Taiwan for a market forecast to be worth over US $6 billion in 2004, and to climb to $30 billion in 2007, according to market researcher iSupply/Stanford Resources in El Segundo, Calif.

The latest of these industry alliances involves Canon Inc. and Toshiba Corp., both in Tokyo. The companies announced in mid-September a joint venture to produce and market large flat-panel screens for TVs based on surface-conduction electron-emitter display (SED) technology [see photo, " New Entrant"]. This technology is a newcomer to the big-screen wars, which have been dominated by liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), followed by plasma displays and projection TVs using cathode ray tube (CRTs).

SED technology evolved out of research done on field-emission display (FED) technology. Like FED technology, SED is similar in principle to the CRT. However, where a CRT uses a single electron gun to fire, focus, and scan an electron beam across a screenful of phosphors--exciting the material to create millions of colors--an SED makes use of an array of tiny electron emitters measuring just several nanometers wide, each producing an individual pixel.

This setup, which Canon and Toshiba have been exploring together since 1999, makes for a relatively simple design. The 36 inch ( 90 centimeter) diagonal SED prototype described by the companies in their announcement measures just 7 millimeters deep, including the "box" holding everything in place. Essentially, the display contains a phosphor-coated glass plate separated by a small gap from the electron emitters mounted on a second glass plate, with the air evacuated.

SEDs provide a picture as bright as a CRT's, but in much wider sizes and without a CRT's bulk and weight, say Canon and Toshiba. Compared to LCD and plasma displays, SEDs have a faster video response time, as well as superior color reproduction and darkness contrast. Power consumption is also lower, with the SED prototype consuming 160 watts at an average picture level, compared to 200 W for a similar-sized LCD and 350 W for a plasma display, the companies claim.

Canon is taking a 50.002 percent stake in the new venture, named SED Inc. and headquartered in Hiratsuka, just south of Tokyo, with Toshiba accounting for the remainder. Initial investment is ¥20 billion ($183 million), with a further ¥180 billion ($1.6 billion) to be used for setting up a mass production line for the panels. Canon is supplying its proprietary electron-emission and microfabrication technologies to the venture, while Toshiba is bringing the mass production know-how it gained from manufacturing CRTs.

Production of the SED panels for TVs is due to begin in August 2005, with a targeted 3000 units monthly, rising to 15 000 panels at the beginning of 2007. Production capacity will reach 70 000 units monthly by the end of 2007. That will be just about the same time that Seiko Epson, the Japanese manufacturer in Suwa City best known for its inkjet printers, expects to be taking on entrenched LCD and plasma makers with its large organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays.

Seiko Epson, using inkjet printing, unveiled a 40 inch (100 cm) prototype full-color OLED display in May--the industry's largest OLED screen. Seiko Epson says it will be able to produce large OLED TV panels using this technology after improving its OLED materials and extending their lifetime.

Just a couple of weeks before the SED announcement, Toshiba, Hitachi, and Matsushita Electric Industrial said they would establish an alliance in January of next year to produce and market large LCD panels for TVs. And in late July, the consumer-electronics giants Sony Corp. and South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. celebrated the completion of their advanced seventh-generation joint venture production facility in South Korea for manufacturing large LCD panels. Meanwhile, Fujitsu and Hitachi have been producing plasma TVs together through their Fujitsu Hitachi Display Ltd. linkup since 1999.

Other Japanese flat-panel producers continue to go it alone or get out of the market. Ahead of the pack is market pioneer Sharp Corp., Osaka, which launched the first LCD TV in 1987. Sharp maintains the largest global LCD-TV market share with its Aquos line, according to market researcher DisplaySearch in Austin, Texas. Pioneer Corp., Tokyo, a manufacturer of plasma panels, boosted its panel output when it took over NEC Corp.'s plasma panel business last February.

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