Samsung Bets On OLED Printer Maker Kateeva

Kateeva says it has figured out how to make big, cheap OLED displays, and Samsung is betting $38 million on it

3 min read
Samsung Bets On OLED Printer Maker Kateeva
Photo: Kateeva

Let’s talk OLEDs. The news this week is that OLED startup Kateeva, based in Menlo Park near Facebook’s campus, just collected another $38 million in funding, a chunk of that from Samsung. 

Why is this interesting? After all, Kateeva’s been around since 2008 when it spun out of MIT; it already had about $70 million; and OLED has been the unrealized next big thing in large display technology for far too long. But there does seem to be something significant in this announcement. Or maybe I’m just desperately looking for a sign that OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) technology is really a competitor for large screens, because I’m tired of silly tweaks to regular LCD technology. (Enough with the curved screen already.)

First, a little background. Making an OLED display requires somehow placing the light-emitting (OLED means organic light-emitting diode) materials on a substrate in precise patterns of red, green, and blue pixels; a fuzzy pattern means a fuzzy picture. Today’s OLED display manufacturers use shadow masks and vapor deposition create the patterns, typically on glass. That wastes the material that hits the mask. It also limits the screen sizes: Large shadow masks are not physically stable enough to reliably produce defect-free pixels, and trying to use a small mask to make a big screen by repeatedly moving it adds yield-killing contaminating particles. That’s why the large-screen OLED TVs on the market today are so crazily expensive—the yields are lousy and the wasted ink is expensive.

 A lot of people have thought for years that ink-jet printing would be a much better approach, but they’ve had problems getting it to work reliably, thanks to too many particle-caused defects and uneven printing (like what you might see on your inkjet printer at home when the cartridge starts to run dry). They’ve also had problems with the operating lifetimes of displays made this way compared with those made using the more typical vapor deposition process. Still, there’s been a race on to make a truly practical ink-jet printer for OLEDs. Merck and Epson have been working on it; as has Dupont. As has Kateeva. The winner could own manufacturing for the next generation of TVs.

Photo: Kateeva

Kateeva says it’s got it figured out and will be ready to ship manufacturing equipment, at least for the smaller displays that go in mobile devices, by the end of the year; with large-screen manufacturing systems to follow. The company says that part of making it work is its decision to surround the printers with nitrogen, which improves display lifetimes. It also indicated that it made a number of tweaks designed to reduce particle defects, including shielding parts that tend to generate particles, using filtering systems, and developing its own process monitoring and printing algorithms to eliminate printing unevenness.

OK, so here’s what else is interesting. This announcement isn’t coming from a TV manufacturer unveiling an amazing “price and ship date to be determined later” technology at CES; this is a manufacturing equipment company. That makes (relatively) cheap, large-screen OLED sound very real.

And Kateeva, even with Samsung’s investment, isn’t tied to any one TV manufacturer—it will sell its equipment to anybody, so if the process works, once it gets going we might start really seeing cheap OLED TVs, because the competition will be on.

The announcement also is a reminder of Samsung’s growing presence in venture capital and the world of startups. Back in 2013, Samsung created the $1 billion Ventures America Fund and a $100 million Catalyst Fund and set up what it calls a Strategy and Innovation Center on Sand Hill Road, the prime Silicon Valley address for venture investors. When the Ventures America Fund was first introduced, the company said the money would be going into components and subsystems, not content and services. But Samsung isn’t ignoring software, last year it also set up a software startup incubator, the Samsung Accelerator, in the former Varsity Theater on Palo Alto’s University Ave., and plans to turn part of the building into a “working cafe” that’s open to the public. (It's a smart way to troll for startups at the early early pre-garage stage.)

Finally, this latest evidence of Kateeva’s success is one more sign that Silicon Valley’s energies may be focusing back on hardware. Author Mike Malone recently predicted that Silicon Valley is about to face a technical shift from software back to hardware; he can put this one down on his “evidence” list.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.